Blake Smith on Laura Riding, September 12, 2022
This is a commentary from the editors of this website on Blake Smith’s appreciation of Laura Riding, whom he describes in the headline as ‘the great Jewish modernist poet’. Unfortunately the headline concludes, mistakenly and misleadingly, that she ‘abandoned her genius to grow oranges in Florida’.
There are good things in Blake Smith’s essay, bringing to readers unfamiliar with Riding’s thought suggestions as to readings of her poems, ‘Auspice of Jewels’, ‘Incarnations’ and ‘The Last Covenant’, and of the powerful core essay in Anarchism Is Not Enough, ‘Jocasta’. There is, though, while he refers to the new edition of Riding’s first book of poems, The Close Chaplet, little to suggest that he has read Mark Jacobs’ introduction to that book, or to the other painstaking new editions of Laura Riding’s Love As Love, Death As Death, Poems: A Joking Word, and Poet: A Lying Word by Jack Blackmore and Mark Jacobs, in the Trent Editions series. The introductions to these four volumes reproducing her early books of poetry give close readings of key poems, a sustained in-depth analysis, and a sense of the progression of her poetry and thought that is missing from Blake’s account.
Let us restrict ourselves to a few points that correct misleading statements in the text. Firstly, Laura Riding did not ‘abandon her genius’, although it is true that for nearly thirty years after her renunciation of poetry she published very little. She worked with her husband on a work on language, eventually published posthumously as Rational Meaning, but also on a series of new works, perhaps most notably The Telling (1967, 1972). She issued her Selected Poems: In Five Sets in 1970, with a preface defending both her poems and her decision to renounce poetry, and then reissued her Collected Poems in 1980, again with a new introduction. The list of her later publications is long, some posthumously in book form, but many as essays, letters and commentaries in several literary magazines in her lifetime, most notably Chelsea, whose editor Sonia Raiziss was a doughty champion of her work. Alan Clark’s bibliography in Chelsea 69 (2000) is a valuable reference point for the later publications in particular.
To return to the idea that in growing and selling oranges Riding was somehow ‘abandoning her genius’: it is at least arguable that by devoting her time to a successful and productive business she avoided the traps of a conventional literary career, with perhaps a job in a university, as pernicious to her genius. How many talents have flourished in, or survived, such careers? She kept her feet very firmly grounded, as her correspondence demonstrates, with a continuity and development of her thought up to her death in 1991. All of this is made clear in by far the best biography of Laura (Riding) Jackson, A Mannered Grace (2005) by Elizabeth Friedmann, a well-researched and scrupulously-detailed account of her life, which most regrettably seems to have been bypassed by most commentators in favour of less well-evidenced and sometimes sensationalist accounts.
Secondly, Blake Smith repeats the idea that Riding was a philosophical poet. His idea may have been developed from Riding’s own quote (in her preface to the first, 1938 edition, of her Collected Poems) from W.H. Auden. Riding quotes the idea (an intended compliment, perhaps) only to dismiss it in her forthright manner:
‘Thus W.H. Auden, unwilling to conceive that a large-scale compulsion may originate in the poet, has told me that I am “the only living philosophical poet”—my Muse is, presumably, Philosophy, as his is politics.’
She rejects the idea on the assumption that it implies that she is dependent on philosophy as an external source, rather than on the impulsion of her own inspiration. It is perhaps debatable whether (as I tend to feel) some of Riding’s poetry resembles the inspired fragments we have of the insights of pre-Socratic philosophers such as Heraclitus. Her interest in and respect for philosophy and religion can be evidenced in her poetry and in her prose evangel, The Telling, but, as ever, she is critical of the views on language of her philosophical contemporaries Wittgenstein and Heidegger, in whose company she is placed by Blake Smith.
Thirdly, a related and crucial point, Riding did not ‘use’ poetry, or language, rather she lived language. This distinguishes her thought from that of the modern philosophers adduced by Blake Smith, and also from the other poets of her time. It is worth bringing readers’ attention to the blurb, never noticed by critics, that she wrote for the back dust-cover of the English first edition of her Collected Poems (1938):
‘We can now understand why her poems have defied conventional classification. We must read them in relation to each other to appreciate the large coherence of thought behind them. Then, instead of assuming a mysterious personality at work in intellectual isolation, we recognize that here there is a complete range of poetic experience controlled with sensitive wisdom.
‘We cannot, in fact, describe Laura Riding’s poems as of such or such a type or tendency: rather they set a new standard of poetic originality. They are undiluted: no politics or psychology, no religion or philosophical sentiment, no scholastic tendencies, no mystical or musical wantonness. This does not mean that they lack any of the graces that it is proper to expect in poetry: they have memorable beauty of phrase, serene humour, and a rich intricacy of movement that redeems the notion of “pure poetry” from the curse put upon it by the aestheticians. They are, moreover, very consciously the work of a woman, introducing into poetry energies without which it is no more than “a tradition of male monologue”, not a living communication.’
This is as clear a statement as you could wish for, a straightforward expression of pride and ambition, which makes clear how the reader may best approach her poems, and where those poems stand in relation to those of male poets and contemporaries.
Jack Blackmore, October 2022