Riding rides again
February 17, 2005 6:28 PM   Subscribe

The notorious Laura (Riding) Jackson, mistress and muse to Robert Graves, among others, is back with a new poem in the New Republic last week. There's a new biography and a new anthology coming out too, but the best things to read are her tirades to the New York Review of Books in response to critiques of her work by Paul Auster and Harry Matthews.
posted by oldleada (17 comments total)
Wait--isn't she dead? (Checks timeline. Yes.)
posted by kenko at 7:42 PM on February 17, 2005

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* * *

Let patience have a new mettle of love
When the legions of unlivable hours marshal
And the long-rumoured war between good and evil
Seems loosed--no, between time and evil.

To look not too keenly, hear their battles not loudly.
The war is an ancient one which hurls
Time against time on to-morrow's fields--
Which consumes expectation, leaves to-day waiting.

Standing in the shadow of their shadow-world,
Let the cries and the thunders fall voiceless to earth,
And the flames reach to heaven, that top of hell,
Unexalted by our eyes, our amen.

Nor be haggard for an outcome, breath forborne.
When ghosts put on flesh and make bodies ghostly,
It is but how the dead light themselves home
As the living inherit nature.

If the glare blots our sight, if the sparks sting,
If nations gibber and ether tears
And a smell of scorching blows round the world,
As if at last doom were astir (perhaps?):

Shake off the dream, close in fulfilment,
Draw a finer circle and raise boundaries
More home-like unswelling, to stay the heart--
Lusting after better things than are.

Keep a yet more unanxious watch.
Think not to know wonders, learn truth from wild hours.
Let patience glow with its own inwrought lustre,
Not the startled reflection of time's faster burning.

* * *

Laura Riding (1901-1991) rose to prominence as a poet during the 1920s. She moved to Europe in 1926, where she began a long creative and personal association with the English poet Robert Graves, primarily in Deya, Majorca. Forced to flee the island in 1936, the couple was in France when Riding wrote "When the Skies Part." The poem was written in October 1938, only days after Neville Chamberlain's return from Munich proclaiming "peace in our time," while effectively ceding the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. Riding makes a direct response to what she saw as disastrously misplaced faith in diplomacy. "What is happening is not that war has been or is being averted, but the question forming itself more directly and immediately: not merely the method with evil, but who has clean enough hands to deal with it directly.

In a world where poets could still dream of doing good or being heard, she wrote that in France she and Graves "were busy sending out deep-breaking waves of assurance--and I hope something more positive than that, although one can't expect it to be visible among the goings and comings of Downing Street." In the 1940s, long separated from Graves, and as Laura (Riding) Jackson, she renounced the writing of poetry altogether.

This poem was discovered by Elizabeth Friedmann, her authorized biographer, in a collection of correspondence acquired by Cornell University in 1992. It will appear in A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson, to be published this winter by Persea Books.
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:15 PM on February 17, 2005

I tried to get into her work while in graduate school--my professor was just absolutely convinced she was the missing piece in the story of literary Modernism, that she was the one author (among many, granted) who was overlooked beneath the Pound-Eliot-Williams-Joyce-Woolf industry.

But man, I just don't like her stuff at all--and I had to read a lot of it.

Kind of like Graves, the ideas and themes are brilliant, but the actual execution stikes me tepid, if not downright boring.

Still, a nice link. She deserves more attention.
posted by bardic at 9:21 PM on February 17, 2005

Graves, the ideas and themes are brilliant, but the actual execution stikes me tepid, if not downright boring.

You didn't like "I, Claudius"?

I guess I have it backwards: I tend to think of Graves as a translator and mythologist and historian who wrote some poetry on the side :)
posted by freebird at 9:43 PM on February 17, 2005

I know nothing of Ms. Riding's poetry, but I loved her excoriation of Paul Auster. This section in particular brings up an interesting notion about different sorts of poetry:

His reading of my poems is linguistically and poetically illiterate. He uses the stale strategy of the Mean school of Riding criticism: they are devoid of "imagery," the metaphor lacks concrete reference-content, is but a means of trading in abstractions, my poems are those of an anti-poetic poet. Pursuing this vein, Mr. Auster asserts that I do not mean "wind" by "wind," that I—perhaps the most serious contemporary devotee of the sanities of language—nurse notions, in the lines "Come words, away…," impossible to me, represents me as seeking in language a not-human kind of truth, a conception combining insensitivity to my poetic and linguistic ideals, and ignorance of my idea of truth.

I have't read his review, but I can imagine Auster submitting to this "stale strategy." (I wouldn't call it stale though - it's just one of many ways of reading). Auster kind of has a young Wittgenstein thing about him: his works play a lot with the structure and the logic of our concepts, but he simultaneously recognizes that he is very much reined in by those same concepts.
posted by painquale at 10:46 PM on February 17, 2005

Nice point freebird. As someone who tries to write poetry, I tend to forget that I, Claudius and The White Goddess are probably, and rightfully, what he'll be remembered for. Oh, and Farewell to All That.

What I meant to say, ahem (dons grad-school theory-fu monk's robe) was that Riding and Graves had these amazing theories about poetry and poetics, but when I actually sit down to read their actual poems I just can't get into it.

Still, great links.
posted by bardic at 11:11 PM on February 17, 2005

Oops, forget to mention what's most important, Graves himself thought of himself primarily as a poet. But as you mention, history will remember him as a great historical novelist, mythopoetic thinker, and auto-biographer.
posted by bardic at 11:13 PM on February 17, 2005

It's certainly funny - that difference between how we think of ourselves and what history remembers us for.

I, for instance, and oddly enough given what I think of as the salient features of my life, will most likely be remembered by admiring and emulatory generations to come, for...

posted by freebird at 11:24 PM on February 17, 2005

that poem is pretty ick.
the "(perhaps?)" is particularly horrid.
posted by juv3nal at 11:54 PM on February 17, 2005

Tut tut freebird. Surely there's been enough self-flagellation around here lately.

Faulkner thought he was a poet, for Chrissakes, until Sherwood Anderson convinced him to write novels.
posted by bardic at 11:58 PM on February 17, 2005

Thomas Wolfe thought that, too.
anyway good post, thanks
posted by matteo at 12:15 AM on February 18, 2005

I've never read a single poem by Laura (Riding) Jackson that I thought was worth a damn; in fact, if they're more than a few lines long, I often (as in this case) can't actually make myself read them all the way through. And her personality... well, anyone who can seriously write "I—perhaps the most serious contemporary devotee of the sanities of language" is so laughably self-important it would take someone as capable of blind worship as Graves to deal with her.

Also, I can't stand the parentheses in her name.
posted by languagehat at 11:02 AM on February 18, 2005

this poem's got a couple of nice lines, but overall it seems unfocused ... to be fair, let's remember that she didn't choose to publish this

thanks to her eccentric refusal to be anthologized, i'm not very familiar with her ... i looked briefly at a book i saw in barnes and noble with some of her poems and wasn't impressed

for all his opinionated scholarship on the theory of poetry, graves seemed deliberately unambitious as a poet ... he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do and did it, but the results don't seem that compelling to me ... his choice to stay with the traditional themes and forms of poetry proved too limiting for him ... he took a lot of liberties in his other writings and they were much better for it ... i wish that some of the wit and irreverence he had could have appeared in his poems
posted by pyramid termite at 11:44 AM on February 18, 2005

Yay! Thanks for the heads-up, oldleada.

I haven't read many of her poems, but I highly recommend Progress of Stories, a collection of short fiction that starts off weird and only gets weirder. In a good way. (Any Jane Bowles fans out there?)

I took a grad class with Harry Mathews a year or so ago. We didn't discuss Riding's book much, though; he spent the entire period reading the previously mentioned review he wrote for the New York Review of Books, and her excoriating reply in the letters section a few weeks later, aloud. It took over an hour. What I do remember is that Riding bitched mainly about how Harry had gotten her maiden name wrong. (Actually, you can read her reply via the original link to Mathews' review above. He had the nerve to call her "just Laura.")

Incidentally, one of her poems appeared in NYC subways as part of the MTA Poetry in Motion project not long ago.
posted by leslita at 2:14 PM on February 18, 2005

Hey, Graves' love poetry is pretty awesome.
posted by kenko at 4:28 PM on February 18, 2005

That a dead writer is remembered at all is usually amazing. Statistically speaking, that is. Look at poor Shakespeare. If Pete the Parrot is to be believed, our bard regretted he didn't have more time for poetry. Might have made a name for himself.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:49 PM on February 18, 2005

The Travellers' Curse after Misdirection

(from the Welsh)

May they stumble, stage by stage
On an endless Pilgrimage
Dawn and dusk, mile after mile
At each and every step a stile
At each and every step withal
May they catch their feet and fall
At each and every fall they take
May a bone within them break
And may the bone that breaks within
Not be, for variations sake
Now rib, now thigh, now arm, now shin
but always, without fail, the NECK

Robert Graves
That reads pretty well to me. So does quite a lot of his poetry. Anyway, I doubt that his prose work would have been as good if it hadn't been rooted in his poetry.
And kenko is right about the love poetry as well.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:11 AM on February 19, 2005

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