Author Topic: Laura (Riding) Jackson(1901-1991):American critic, novelist, & essayist  (Read 1192 times)

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Offline RonPrice

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A useful "truth-teller" who is useful to know about in our 21st century. This post is somewhat long, too long for many internet site conventions; for readers who prefer short and pithy posts, I recommend skimming or scanning, or just stop reading when you find the post is not relevant to your interest inventory.-Ron Price, Tasmania, Australia

Part 1:

Laura (Riding) Jackson(1901-1991) was an American poet, critic, novelist, essayist and short story writer whom I came to know about in the first years of my retirement after a 50 year student-and-paid-employment life: 1949 to 1999.  In 1938 W.H. Auden called her "the only living philosophical poet, and in 1939 another American poet, Robert Fitzgerald, expressed the hope that with the 1938 publication of her Collected Poems,  "the authority and the dignity of truth-telling, lost by poetry to science, may gradually be regained."1 

For the last two days I have spent many hours reading about this most philosophical of poets who has come onto the radar of many writers and poets since the early 1990s, partly due to the extensive publication of her work which has continued since her death in 1991.  I began reading and writing poetry seriously, myself, in the early 1990s. I first heard of Laura Riding back in the 1990s, but time and circumstance, responsibilities and health issues, prevented me from taking a serious look at her life and work.

Part 1.1:

Jack Blackmore, in a paper given at The Laura (Riding) Jackson Conference in 2010 expressed the view that: "There are affinities between Riding, Coleridge, and William Blake. There is a common optimism and conviction: that one’s self, one self, through the most intense scrutiny of and engagement with language and life, can take the measure of the universe."2 Blackmore included the following quotation from Coleridge to support that poet's affinity with Riding: "The Poet is not only the man who is made to solve the riddle of the Universe, but he is also the man who feels where it is not solved and this continually awakens his feelings …"-Coleridge, Lecture on Poetry, 12 December 1811.

Blackmore went on to say that "more than any poet in recent times Laura Riding conceived of her poems as a whole work, a universe."2 And so, too, do I in relation to what has become a vast corpus, a very large personal oeuvre. There are many aspects of Riding's philosophy of poetry, her view of writing, literature and life that provide parallels with my own way of going about my literary enterprise. It is for this reason that I write this prose-poetic piece.

Part 2:

Even in her earliest days as a poet in the 1920s, she felt that literature offered opportunity for the interpretation of individual experience as a contribution to the realisation of the highest aspirations of human existence.2  Her lifelong quest was for a way of right living, based on right speaking. Though serious in her dedication to finding solutions to the problems of human existence, she refused to be aligned with any 'isms,' insisting that human beings should abjure what is divisive and temporal and concentrate their efforts toward communicating to one another the innate spiritual knowledge that is their human legacy.1

To put this another way, "for this poet nothing but heart-felt meaning finally matters.’3 I came to an appreciation of literature in a much different way than Riding. The social sciences took my attention until my 30s; literature, both prose and poetry, made intellectual inroads into my life-narrative by degrees in my 30s and 40s. By my 50s my academic and literary agenda was packed-to-the-rafters in a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, headset and mind-scape, panorama and prospect.

In the 1920s Riding wrote about what she called "a new race of poets...rough-edged and stalwart beings, pioneers equipped for both static ecstasy and the ability to progress into unexplored territory,  possessing an extreme idealism, the belief in organic growth and an inner core of necessary meaning."4 She saw the poetic enterprise, at least for most of the years in the 1920s and 1930s, as a collaborative and pleasurable activity requiring fellow poets to adjust their interests to central themes and a unity of values, to sacrifice their individuality to a pervasive and unifying totality of poetic meaning.

These words had particular resonance for me since it was in the 1920s and 1930s that the first pioneers arose in response to Abdul-Baha's teaching Plan as outlined in His Tablets of the Divine Plan written during the Great War.  This was a Plan I have come to be associated with for more than 60 years of my life. The entre deux guerres generation, sometimes known as the silent generation from the mid-20s to the early 1940s, was the first generation of pioneers to take part in that Plan.

In the 1960s I became part of what was the third generation of pioneers. These words of Riding's were more than a little apt as a descriptor of "the new race of men" called forth in the Baha'i community to put that Plan into action. In the 1990s, after the death of Riding, I became one of that "new race of poets." Or so I liked to think. I thank Riding for helping me gain a helpful, a quite personally meaningful perspective on literature in general, poetry in particular, and especially the literary history of the last century.

Part 2.1:

Riding felt that poets were, by constitution and inclination, fragmented in a multitude of contrasting selves who present at any one time only a temporary approximation of meaning, and only a temporary but often, if not always, an unstable coordination of selves.5  The older I have got, and particularly as I got into my 60s and 70s, the more I became aware of the nature of the constitution that has carried me through life and the inclinations that have determined so much of what has happened to me; these contrasting, these fractured, and only partly coordinated selves have certainly been characterized by the temporary in relation to all sorts of activities and an evolving meaning structure in my life.

From the late 1920s to 1940 Riding worked closely in a fertile but volatile relationship with the prolific English poet, novelist, critic, and classicist Robert Graves(1895-1985). He had his own views of writing prose and poetry. He saw the writing of poetry, among other things, as "a complex experience in which the poet must always drag about the dead load of sense with him."5 These two poets collaborated in varying degrees of intensity and success for two decades.

Part 3:

There was what Riding called in her Collected Poems of 1938: “an uncovering of truth in writing poetry, a truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth?”5  In that same 1938 preface to her Collected Poems she wrote, “One reads to uncover to oneself something that would otherwise remain unknown—something that one feels it is important to know”5

"The goal of poetry to Riding," wrote Andrea Rexilius in her analysis of Riding's work, "is to reach the edge of our capacity to know ourselves, to lean as far outside of the body as is possible without collapsing in on the self. Poetry is a telescope, or a microscope, that focuses awareness of the body, and through the body focuses an awareness on self, not an individual self, but the 'self-ness of being', perhaps even a selflessness, a nothingness."6

Part 3:

There had developed in the 20th century, Riding observed, a distinction between audiences which on the one hand wanted their poetry real and grounded in the vernacular, so to speak, and on the other audiences which wanted poetry to be a transcendent practice of truth-telling, but in a different, a more elevated and unreal musical register. Riding came to the view before WW2 that both poetic registers or styles were examples of truth-telling. Keeping poetry colloquially real and grounded in the vernacular was one type of truth-telling.  This type involved ordinary men and women writing ordinary messages to the world. Words defined the essence of poetry, and its subject matter was just ordinary life; the emphasis was on meaning rather than a poetic artifice of language.

Part 3.1:

When just 61, in April 1962, Laura did a reading for the BBC. The reading involved her first formal and public statement of her reasons for renouncing poetry. She rejected, or renounced, poetry for many reasons; she came to see most of it as artifice, and artifice compromised truth-telling which she had previously seen as the major function of poetry.  I was but 18, when Riding made this statement on the BBC. I was in the last months of my high school life, the last months of my adolescent baseball, hockey and football careers, and the first months of my romantic-erotic life. 

This was just before I left my home town and before I began my travelling-pioneering days for and in the Canadian Baha'i community; it was also just before the first signs of bipolar I disorder were apparent in my psycho-social life.  The roller-coaster of my emotional life gradually settled-down by degrees and, by my 50s and 60s, it had settled-down sufficiently for me to engage in a literary-writing life. As I look back from the perspective of my 70s, I see the improved treatments for my mental-health issues, as an important factor in helping me develop my poetic, my literary, sensibility.

Part 4:

Riding came to see truth-telling as essentially a biographical process involving the finding and refining of her “real voice.”  This real voice was found in her Brooklyn background; she came to feel by degrees throughout the 1940s and 1950s that, when she had previously written poetry, she had been putting-on an exaggerated voice; this voice was a substitution for what she came to see as her real voice, a voice expressed in her bio-social, bio-psychological, life and in her Polish-Jewish Brooklynese.

Riding continued throughout her life to explore what she regarded as the truth-potential of language, free from any of the artificial restrictions of poetic art. "My faith in poetry was at heart, and in the long run, a faith in language as the elementary wisdom", she wrote in 1976.5  I was just starting my three year stint at the University of Ballarat as a lecturer in the social sciences, and in the Ballarat Baha'i community as its chairman and secretary. My only son was also born during this time. I was, then, in my early 30s, and still battling with episodes of BPD. I knew nothing of Riding in the 1970s. I had not really begun to seriously engage in either studying poetry or writing it.

Part 4.1:

Riding came to feel that poetry disappoints its readers because “all is suffused with the light of drab poetic secularity.”  She also questioned poetry as a craft because it was nearly always rooted in individualism’s “claim to self-sufficiency." "Is that all there is?", she asks. "Poets are just like Santa’s helpers tinkering with their toy-poems and constantly talking about 'process' as the 'natural and legitimate' concern of the poet.”  Her final apprehension of the flawed nature of poetic utterance came as the result of an arduous intellectual journey that spanned at least two decades,1 the two decades that were my life, from the time my parents met in about 1940, until the early '60s when I began my travelling-and-pioneering for the Canadian Baha'i community.

In the 1960s and 1970s Riding's poetry became too abstract, too intellectual, too based in ideas for many poets and critics.  “If your central motive as a writer is to put across ideas,” the American short story writer and essayist Steve Almond(1966-) stated, “write an essay.” The novelist and critic Stephen Koch warned that poets should not be too intellectual.  The result of these views among the many views of others, Riding thought, was that knowledge had been pretty much removed from poetry.  Poetry was sidelined into creative writing departments at universities.  Sticking poetry into creative writing departments was part of Riding’s critique of much of modern poetry.  Poets who focus heavily on craft-making, and who court verbal sensuosity at the expense of truth-telling, these are the poets in the creative writing departments.3

Part 5:

In 1995, four years after her passing, and four years before my early retirement, my sea-change, after a student-and-paid-employment-life of 50 years: 1949 to 1999,  the following words of Riding's were found in the London Review of Books:7

"Another way of describing my point of view is to say that I am trying to function in the field of human criticism rather than in that of literary criticism......During my career as a poet I became increasingly an advocate of poetry." In the final stages of her poetic career which had ended by the 1940s, she claimed and she believed that "poetry was the way of truth, and to truth, the ‘of’ and the ‘to’ being mingled in my mind in a fond hope that somewhere along the way approach would turn into arrival."

"Lest my use of ‘truth’ in the preceding sentence throws a religious mist over my meaning, let me recast my phrasing: I believed that poetry was the way of speaking true and the way to speaking true, both a path of the ideal in language and a place of its realisation. This double focus was the result of my not having a categorically literary conception of poetry."

Riding came eventually to believe, certainly by the 1960s if not well before, that "there was something ineradicably wrong with the activity of poetry, and that this was reflected in poetry, the matter, as I call it. I arrived at this belief not from disapproval of the cultivation of extraordinary linguistic powers to which poets are professionally dedicated, not with any priggish bias towards the plain-ordinary verbal level, but in the persuasion that poetry involves a distortion of a natural human ambition of linguistic self-fulfilment, and that poets delude themselves into feeling that they attain a verbal serene above the murk of commonplace articulateness, and that they obstruct the general vision of human linguistic potentialities with the appearance of doing so."8 

Part 5.1:

"As a poet," wrote Riding, "I am a participant in a worldly epic in which significance can be found in living and dying, together with everything and everyone else.  My higher self deals with this epic. Everyday language and discourse was just so much social rhythmic clutter." "Poetry," she wrote in 1962, "is not the natural spiritual speech of human beings....she called this kind of speech in poetry "linguistically freakish."

"In the ordinary way of speaking, and the ordinary way of writing, called ‘prose’, which is modelled on this ordinariness, there is an obvious murkiness; the ‘good’ speaker or prose-writer is one who is able to keep this murkiness minimal.  In the poetic way of writing, which is at once a non-ordinary way of speaking, there is no escape from murkiness, but such murkiness is concealable; the ‘good’ poet is one who keeps this murkiness so inconspicuous that it makes no overt problem for his or her or anybody else’s intelligence." 

Part 6:

Riding wrote that her concern above all was to “the conduct of life itself.” The poet is called upon to remind people what the universe really looks and feels like. This is the function of the language of the poet; this is what language means: the poet must use language in a fresh way or even invent new language. As the poet reads or writes, the audience-readers, ideally, become the poet, and the poet the audience. They are all suddenly one. Here the reader touches the poet and vice versa.9

"Much of the magical effect that poetry gives of rendering everything it touches pellucid comes from the necessity of compression that it imposes. The impossibility of pausing in poetry, except in order to make sense and clarity, causes many a set of words actually deficient in linguistic workmanship to pass for an eloquent brevity.-Ron Price with thanks to:1Elizabeth Friedmann in the preface of A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Persea Books, Inc., 2005; 2Jack Blackmore in a paper given at The Laura (Riding) Jackson Conference in 2010; 3 Introduction to A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, 1994, p3; 4Carla Billitteri, "Riding-Graves: The Meaning of Collaboration", internet site; 5Laura Riding, Collected Works, 1938, Preface; 6Andrea Rexilius, "Laura (Riding) Jackson: Against the Commodity of the Poem (part 1), essays, features', Nottingham Trent University, 22/2/'14; 7Laura Riding, "The Road To, In, And Away From, Poetry", Reader, p. 251; 8Laura Riding "The Promise of Words" in the London Review of Books(Vol. 17, No. 17, 7 September 1995), and 9Benjamin Hollander, "Looking for (Mrs) Laura (Riding) Jackson, the anti-social people’s poet, from Jamaica (Queens) to Woodruff Avenue (Brooklyn)" in The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics and Culture, 14/7/'15.

Part 6.1::

Making everything I touch
pellucid, clear, bright, plain,
simple, luminous, explicit;
comprehensible, transparent,
pure, limpid, translucent, and
can but try as one engages in
in the act of compression, and
a so very eloquent brevity!!!!1

1 In A Survey of Modernist Poetry, 1927, p.84, co-authored by Robert Graves, she/they write: "The quarrel now is between the reading public and the modernist poet over the definition of clearness. Both agree that perfect clearness is the end of poetry, but the reading public insists that no poetry is clear except what it can understand at a glance; the modernist poet insists that the clearness of which the poetic mind is capable demands thought and language of a far greater sensitiveness and complexity than the enlarged reading public will permit it to use. To remain true to his conception of what poetry is, he has therefore to run the risk of seeming obscure or freakish, of having no reading public; even of writing what the reading public refuses to call poetry, in order to be a poet.

I have become aware of this problem, the problem of the reading public, in the last three decades, 1985 to 2015, when most of my poetry has been written.  One of my responses has been to remove as much of the obscurity from my work as possible, but still maintaining a certain academic, serious, somewhat elite-and-exclusive, elevated style and content.

Ron Price
2/2/'15 to 6 /2/'15.

married for 48 years, a teacher for 32, a student for 18, a writer and editor for 16, and a Baha'i for 56(in 2015)