Laura (Riding) Jackson
Against the Commodity of the Poem
Why do we write poetry? According to Laura (Riding) Jackson, when she still believed in and wrote poetry, it is not to create “art” but to discover “an advanced degree of self” (Anarchism, 119). To further explain her notion of this “self” as a system of poetics, she writes, “when this self has been isolated from all that is impression and impurity of contact in an individual, then a 'thing,' a work, occurs, it is discharged from the individual, it is self; not his self, but Self” (Anarchism, 6). Poetry then is transcendent of the individual who is writing the poem; art perhaps is not. Poetry is a process that reveals or recognizes a beginning, an origin that causes all humans to become defined by the commonality of awareness, of being, of selfhood. The border, the “degree in the consciousness beyond which the consciousness itself cannot go” is for Laura (Riding) Jackson the edge of our capacity to know ourselves. The goal of poetry is to reach this edge, 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 selfness of being. Given this view of poetry, it is of little surprise that Laura (Riding) Jackson was greatly and continuously offended by notions of poetry as commodity, as game, or as “public flattery.” Her integrity as a writer lies in her extreme seriousness about the act of writing. It is for her alchemical, and timeless. It answers not to public opinion or to poetic movement or to one's contemporaries. Poetry may not even answer to the poet herself. Thus, “Riding concluded that poetry is 'perhaps the only human pursuit left still capable of developing anti-socially,' that is, to serve only poetry's intrinsic needs” (Adams, 38).
During her early career Laura (Riding) Jackson authored a series of critical texts that further explicate her take on the purpose of poetry and aid in her definition of the poem as “anti-social.” In A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), 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 (84).
During a period when poetic form is switching out of traditional rhyme and meter into free verse Jackson and Graves are aware that the “plain reader” may no longer know how to read poetry. The most important argument here is that it is the reader who must adapt to the poem, not the poem or the poet to the reader. Survey is known for its introduction of what is now called New Criticism or close reading. Jackson and Graves apply this method (for the first time) to poems by Cummings, Pound, Eliot and other well-known modernists in an attempt to reveal to the public how one goes about reading poetry that is not reigned in by traditional land-marks. They also make a distinction between modernist poetry that is actually doing something, that is working, and poetry that merely hides or poses as something else, as for instance, music or painting or mathematics or symbol. In addition, they argue against capitalism's effect on modern writing where commerce, competition, and “conscientious imitation of the time-spirit” prevail over actual poetic discovery (158). Jackson and Graves believe that “All poetry that deserves to endure is at once old-fashioned and modernist” (70). It is a poetry that exists in two places at once, in the realm of Before and in the realm of Now. This last statement sounds like it could be in alliance with many other modernist authors and slogans; however, Laura (Riding) Jackson, at least, is more complicated than this.
In Contemporaries and Snobs (1928) she brutally critiques some of these same contemporaries. For instance, she came to believe Imagism and other poetic movements were just fashion statements, marketable ways to renew the public's interest in the poem. And that the use of the long poem (think Pound, Eliot, Sitwell, etc.) were just “contemporary efforts to make the poetic absolute consist in sheer structural impressiveness” (47). And that Joyce, Woolf, and Proust all wrote “false novels” (68-69). Just one year later she is distressed that “More and more the poet has been made to conform to the literature instead of literature to the poet—literature being the name given by criticism to works inspired by or obedient to criticism” (10). She finds that poetry is being written so that it can be criticized and feels that this system of production damages the poem's ability to invent. “Poetry had become the property of society and like any other manufactured commodity had ceased to have any organic connection with its makers” (24). The self and the Self of the poem had gone missing, the individual replaced by the social.
One last critical work by Laura (Riding) Jackson that is worth mentioning in this context is the Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928), also co-authored by Robert Graves. In this text the two authors take on the “market value” of poetry and the “problem of audience” (Adams, 29). Here again we find that the dilemma is entangled with ideas or definitions of why we write poetry, or what poetry is for. They condemn the anthology and the critic in the following statement, “The critic's business has come to be to condone the general reader's wilful inertness; to reprove or neglect poets who do not take these into account; and to bear out his assumption that the poet's first thought in writing a poem is its eventual inclusion in an anthology” (88). The distress and anger here is clearly not about being unrecognized by the public, but about what is happening to the meaning of the poem. She writes, “Creation and critical judgement being made one act, a work has no future history with readers; it is ended when it is ended” (Contemporaries, 132). The poem as commodity is consumable and disposable. It is cute. It is easily dissected. It does not speak to what poetry should or is able to speak to, and that again, is to her idea of Selfness, an idea that does not exist and cannot exist on the surface of the marketable world, but that lunges much deeper, into an almost metaphysical understanding of, and relationship to the world. It is the anti-social (the unmarketable) aspects of poetry that she is vying for, because without this, poetry will no longer be poetry, it will be something else.
How then is the poem perceived within Laura (Riding) Jackson's poetry? If, as was said before, we write poetry to encounter “an advanced degree of self,” how does this version of the self become present within a poem, or as a poem? How is the poem transcendent of the individual who is writing the poem, or how does it manifest this idea of Self Are any of these things even possible? Ultimately Laura (Riding) Jackson would say they are not, that poetry fails in its many attempts. At the moment I am not interested in what she perceived as failure; I am more interested in her success, words in the form of poetry upon the page. I would like to begin exploring her poems by asking in what way Laura (Riding) Jackson's poetry is anti-social, and what in her view as poet, are poetry's “intrinsic needs.” In the 1938 preface to her Collected Poems she writes, “One reads to uncover to oneself something that would otherwise remain unknown---something that one feels it is important to know” (PLR, 482). What do we, as readers come to “know” by reading her poems? What, in particular, do we come to know about her ideas of “self”?
In her poem “Disclaimer of the Person,” she begins “I say myself,”(251) a line that actually seems to claim rather than disclaim the person. She goes on to describe the beginning of self as not an actual beginning, but rather an end, the end of not saying. The self begins with awareness of the self. Her sense of the creation myth is not related to deity, but to consciousness. Consciousness itself is the deity. One may even extend this to suggest that self also is deity. Time and space are collapsed and her saying becomes circular, or spiral, always building off of itself so that each new statement is slightly different than the previous one. At the peak of this spiral we find the lines, “What is one thing? / It is all things myself / And each as myself / And none myself” (253). Now the disclaimer sets in. “Myself alone is the one thing only. [claiming] / I am not I [claiming and disclaiming at once] / I am the one thing only / Which each thing is” [disclaiming the person for being] (253). In The Enemy Self, Barbara Adams describes Laura (Riding) Jackson's poetry as “intense and ethereal, like Dickinson's, and, paradoxically, expansive and inclusive, like Whitman's”(1). In this poem in particular I read Whitman. This poem is both a “song of myself” and a vision not unlike The Sleepers' democratic notion of self as universal. That she ties this paradox of self to speech, to “saying,” is interesting. By doing so she suggests that one speaks both as oneself and as all selves, not about, but as. Her disclaimer of the person is an act of giving up the ownership of “saying” and simultaneously being responsible for that saying. When the self is anonymous, she suggests, rather than having less responsibility for the moral value of what one is saying, one has more. When “I am not I,” I am myself and I am beyond myself. The burden of realization does not have claim to a body (to a person) but to speech itself. Our becoming (via this poem's creation myth) is languaged rather than bodied. As Wexler writes, “For her, thought was the total experience of the consciousness that distinguished human beings from the natural world, and she made her poetry a record of her mind becoming aware of itself” (40). One might say that her poetry is not about a relationship between the body and the world, but about a relationship between the mind and the world. Therefore, “...Riding managed to make thought as vivid in her poems as sensory experience is in other poet's work” (Wexler, xii).
Her collection of early poems, First Awakenings, details another way of considering “self” within her work. According to Wexler, in this work, “Riding divorces the emotional experience and insight of each poem from whatever occasion inspired it. Regarding her feelings as instances of universal human emotions, she avoids describing details that would isolate any incident in a particular life” (17). The first poem in the collection, “A Bird Speaks” exemplifies this. Because the speaker in the poem is the bird, (Riding) Jackson is able to establish the distance the other poems in this collection require. It is the distance of being human, of being an anonymous speaker, or of being leveled by the use of second person to refer to self. The bird (as poet) speaks to the human (poet), “You think I am a pretty little bird, don't you/ Poised here on the tip of the roof.../ Perhaps you will walk home thinking of me / And write a little poem: / A pretty little bird / Delicately poised / Against the sky” (3). The poem is not actually about these images. It is about the mind of the bird via the mind of the poet, and the mind of the poet via the mind of the bird. Strangely, the poem is also about being human. As the bird is personified, the human becomes nondescript and externalized. The poem details a landscape of the mind (the human mind, even as it speaks for the bird) and ignores the “face” of the person speaking, so that what is human is not tied to an individual, but to all individuals as witness.
Laura (Riding) Jackson's most narrative poems, the “poems of mythic occasion” again detail a personal history that transcends any specific self by focusing on human relationships to environmental surroundings and to body. The long poem, “Forgotten Childhood” tells the story of “Lida,” more or less. In the second section of the poem, entitled “Herself,” she writes: “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?” (3). Perhaps in these lines we see most explicitly the terms of the creation myth found in “Disclaimer of the Person.” Lida is primarily concerned with what makes her a self. She is a self because she has a body, but that body doesn't really explain why she is. Lida is also questioning the origins of consciousness or of “what knows in [her].” The paradox of being is that one knows that their own knowing eludes them. The self does not know exactly where or what the self is. Her poetic aim is not to convey or argue but to inquire, and to encounter. The “truth” she is after is not of an individual self (the bordered body), but of Self (the unbordered as poetic body).
It is through these ideas of self that we are led to Laura (Riding) Jackson's beliefs about language, and through these beliefs, to what it is that makes her poems anti-social, or opposed to poem as product. Ironically, I find her clearest statement about what it is she risked in her poems in The Telling (1967), the first book she wrote after her renunciation of poetry:
In every human being there is secreted a memory of a before-oneself; and,
if one opens the memory, and the memory, and the mind is enlarged with it,
one knows a time which might be now, by one's feelings of being somehow
of it...And, returning from the memory, our minds are nearly our mind; and
the One of ourselves we nearly know better than ourselves...Thus we become
able to speak to one another as tellers of a living story, of the truth of which
we are one another's surety...The memory we have in us of a time before
physical time is the memory of this end [of utter soul-being]: our memory of
utter soul-being, possessed through the body's witness to what-has-occurred,
is a memory of its ceasing” (25-29).
Laura (Riding) Jackson's poetics, when it was a poetics, was to reach a state of knowing, through the medium of language, of what was before we were divided into selves. Her concern is similar to the concern a scientist has for the origin of the universe. She wants to know at what point and how consciousness, or sense of self arose. Her poetic risk is that in order to create actual poetry she must lose for a time the sense of where she ends and others begin. “We do not stop in our bodies, but outstrip them. We are more than our bodies, and can remember what was before them” (Telling, 27). It is perhaps this type of remembering that poetry desires. It is the “telling” of a “living story” that the poem requires. The “truth” she speaks of is not discovered (as an object), it is experienced (as an encounter). “...[F]or poetry is that form of discourse whose only object is to allow language to display itself, to show how it lives” (McGann, 472). When she writes, “The end of poetry is not to create a physical condition which shall give pleasure to the mind.... The end of poetry is not an after-effect, not a pleasurable memory of itself, but an immediate constant and even unpleasant insistence upon itself” (Anarchism, 35), she is insisting that the poem is not simply a material, that language is not a material, but in a way, is a living creature that is aware, that is imbued with insight and information, that the poem is insightful beyond the poet. It is, as Jerome McGann would say, “revelatory” as opposed to “knowledgeable” (457). It is this idea of “truth” or discovery that she was working towards, and the only reason she wrote her poems. In fact, in the 1938 preface to the collected poems she would say, “writing is not my work; it is the form my work takes”(5).
Ultimately Laura (Riding) Jackson would reject the poem and look toward language itself as a way to reach her goal. What was poetry's failure for Jackson? In his essay, “Laura Riding's Quarrel with Poetry,” Masopust defines it this way: “[t]he problem of poetry...lies in poetry's divided nature as a form of spiritual utterance on the one hand and a form of art on the other” (45). Poetry seems to have lost its ability to develop anti-socially; it has become artifice. According to Masopust, she also relinquishes the possibility of Self in the poem. “Because poetry stresses the physical aspect of words, it cannot fulfill the true function of language, which she believes is to 'transmute our private bodily selfhood' into a representative, universal selfhood” (45). In this situation, the reason we wrote poetry becomes the same reason we don't write it. However, many other critics find additional reasons for her renunciation. For instance, Ashton claims, “[f]or (Riding) Jackson, the failure of poetry came not from a discovery that the poet couldn't control the poem, but that the poet couldn't control what her readers would make of it” (96). And Wallace notes, “...Riding represents the case of a writer who has been effectively decanonized because of her insistence upon being the ultimate referent of her own work and because of her refusal to cede either interpretive or descriptive authority over her work” (111). This is the darker, or strangely more personal side to the poem that becomes anti-social, or silent.
Adams, Barbara Block. The Enemy Self: Poetry and Criticism of Laura Riding. Ann Arbor: U-M-I Research Press, 1990.
Ashton, Jennifer. “Laura (Riding) Jackson and T=H=E N=E=WC=R=I=T=I=C=I=S=M.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 95-118.
Friedmann, Elizabeth and Laura (Riding) Jackson. “Interview with Laura (Riding) Jackson.” Chelsea 49. Ed. Sonia Raiziss. New York: Chelsea Associates, Inc. , 1990. p. 3-27.
Jackson, Laura (Riding). First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding. Eds. Elizabeth Friedmann, Alan J. Clark, and Robert Nye. New York: Persea Books, 1992.
Jackson, Laura (Riding). The Poems of Laura Riding: A Newly Revised Edition of the 1938-1980 Collection. New York: Persea Books, 1938 / 1980.
Jackson, Laura (Riding). The Telling. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Masopust, Michael, A. “Laura Riding's Quarrel with Poetry.” South Central Review, Vol. 2, No. I. (Spring, 1985), pp. 42-56. JSTOR. .
McGann,Jerome J. “Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Literal Truth.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 3. (Spring, 1992), pp. 454-473. JSTOR. .
Riding, Laura and Robert Graves. A Pamphlet Against Anthologies. New York: Ams Press, 1928.
Riding, Laura and Robert Graves. A Survey of Modernist Poetry. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1927.
Riding, Laura. Anarchism is Not Enough. Ed. Lisa Samuels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Riding, Laura. Contemporaries and Snobs. New York: DoubleDay Doran & Company, Inc., 1928.
Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Laura Riding and the Politics of Decanonization.” American Literature, Vol. 64, No. 1. (Mar., 1992), pp. 111-126. JSTOR. .
Wexler, Joyce Piell. Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979.