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On Jackson's Poetry and Criticism

Laura (Riding) Jackson’s poetry and criticism are intricately linked in their inquery into the paradoxical nature of human expression and feeling.   After “practicing” poetry from the early 1920s to 1938, she renounced poetry saying that its no longer served as a means of expressing the modern word/world.

Poetry bears in itself the message that it is the destiny of human beings to speak the meaning of being, but it nurses it in itself as in a sacred apartness, not to be translated into the language of common meanings in its delivery.  I was able to achieve in my poems a use of words that paid respect to the poetic motive of difference in word-use and respect at the same time to language as essentially one with itself, not divided into levels of meaning.  But the constraints that the poetic techniques of difference impose on word-use limit the speaking-range and the meaning-effectuality of language to a miniature human and linguistic universalness.  My kind of seriousness, 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.   

from Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Introduction” to The Poems of Laura Riding: A New Edition of the 1938 Collection (NY: Persea Books, Inc., 1980).

David Perkins

[(Riding) Jackson’s] poems have the action of intelligence as their form and content.  Often they are argument; assertions are made, explained, defended, justified, sometimes questioned and countered.  In such poems her language may be plain, general, and colloquial.  Other poems more resemble the Metaphysical mode (or the version of it that developed in the twenties) and continue a metaphor while exploring its implications: for example, the metaphors of maps in “The Map of Places” and that of jewels in “Auspices of Jewels.”  Her syntax is generally compressed and elliptical, and she musters an idiosyncratic, resourceful diction (“secretless,” “usedness”) with compounds (“lover-round,” “day-change,” “Self-wonder”).  Her perceptions tend to be especially alert to automatic routines of feeling and language.  “The final outrage” is a stock phrase; typically correcting it by writing “outrage unfinal” (in “Memories of Mortalities”), Riding comments on both the true state of affairs and the false state of our language, or more exactly, of our ordinary, unthinking use of it.  Poems such as “Postponement of Self” and “As Well as Any Other” articulate her rejection of nineteenth-century poetic conventions.  Her truth-telling can be aggressively downright, but is often expressed with paradox and irony.  Irony is seldom her final position, however, for her mind is more conscientious than it is open, and her predications, though complex, are not tentative.  At her best she compresses original insights into forceful, surprising phrases.

from David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987). p.9

 Barbara Adams

Riding’s poetry has elements common to much recent American poetry—the search for a unified identity, an obsession with death and hope of transcendence through art.  It is a self-conscious and tension-ridden poetry, but more detached and abstract than that of her contempraries.  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.”

from Barbara Adams, “Laura Riding’s Autobiographical Poetry: ‘My Muse as I’” in Concerning Poetry 15 (Fall 1982):   71-87.

Peter S. Temes

(Riding) Jackson achieved a certan authority through her rejection [of poetry after 1938], 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 manuever 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 continuous occasion to preserve her critical voice, which would otherwise be silent.

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

Barbara Adams

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 Robert 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. (p. 195)

from Barbara Adams, "Laura Riding's Poems:  A Double Ripeness" in Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 189-95.

Luke Carson

… 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 [after 1938] 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 ... is divided by an investment in authority that it refuses to admit.  The importance of contractual and covenantal language in Riding's work reveals the condition of both skepticism and belief to be the relationship to authority. (p. 415-416)

from Luke Carson, "'This Is Something Unlosable': Laura Riding's 'Compacting Sense'" in Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 37 (Winter 1995): 414-444.

Jerome McGann

All of (Riding) Jackson's work up to the publication of Collected Poems [1938] has 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." [Riding, "To the Reader." Collected Poems (London, 1938), p. xviii]  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....

As many know, after 1938 Riding wrote no more poetry.... 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 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 (1972), maintains its commitment to the project of revelation of truth through language....

(Riding) Jackson came to believe that poetry was merely the most seductive and deceptive of the betrayals of truth and language....

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 ... must not be seen as a conceptual project.  Rather, it is the continuous execution of that [one] story, which has an infinite number of (possible and actual) realizations.  (pp. 457-460)

from Jerome McGann, "Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Literal Truth" in Critical Inquiry 18 (Spring 1992): 454-473.

Jeanne Heuving

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 to our time: to arrive at a "true" human universality through a complex intervention in signifying practices themselves…

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. … 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 notion 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.  (pp. 191-192).

Jeanne Heuving, “Laura (Riding) Jackson's "Really New" Poem” in Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers, eds. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1966).  191-213.

Joyce Piell Wexler

…Riding found a voice within herself that reached back to Shelley and forward to the epistemological poetry of our own time. She believed that the mind used language as a tool to reach self-consciousness and that poetry was the purest expression of this self-knowledge. Although she turned inward to find subjects and forms, she was confident that introspection would lead to the discovery of a universal human self….  Both her conception of poetry and her poems meet rigorous standards. She succeeded in making her reader aware of the thought process, particularly the relationship of language to consciousness. Many of Riding's poems are entirely about thought, but they seemed excessively abstract to her contemporaries. Other poems are more appealing because they describe the mind's response to emotional states like love, anger, fear, uncertainty. These poems seem more concrete, but in fact, Riding managed to make thought as vivid in her poems as sensory experience is in other poets' work.

Riding's concern with the relationship between sensory perception and intuitive knowledge eventually caused her to renounce poetry. Like a martyr, she denied herself what she loved most. Although she considered her own poems closer to truth than those of anyone else, she felt that poetry inevitably appealed to the senses and therefore could not express absolute truth.

Seeking an immutable setting for truth, she turned to linguistic study and lexicography to find a way to make the public more cognizant of the meanings of words than she was able to do in poetry. Because of her renunciation of poetry after the publication of her Collected Poems in 1938 and her subsequent reluctance to permit her poems to be reprinted, she is barely known today. (pp. xi-xii)

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

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