A Letter to the Editor
A Letter To The Editor' [On Michael Kirkham on Robert Graves], Minnesota Review, 7(l),1967, pp. 77-79.
I am writing to you in comment upon Mr. Michael Kirkham’s article "The Poetic Liberation’ of Robert Graves,” which appeared in your issue Number 3, Volume VI, 1966. I saw this article long after its publication, through a friend’s sending me this issue, for the possible interest to me of the references to myself contained in the article. For years 1 have proceeded without interest in such things; and, indeed, I have seen little of them, as it has happened. Very recently, I had reason to feel that they ought not to be entirely disregarded.
Mr. Kirkham traces certain of Mr. Graves’ stands, positions, notions, to my thinking, citing two books, only, and quoting passages from but one, The World And Ourselves, to substantiate his points. The comments I offer concern a striking blankness I find, rather than outright error, in Mr. Kirkham’s deductions. So far I know, he has gone beyond any other in this identification of source-material. It is his setting off on the right track, and then discontinuing the journey, that makes his procedure remarkable. There is plenty of track for further exploration, in the grassy confusion with which the subject is over-grown. But there is also much to call the inquiring mind back from such a journey; a lap or so gratifies the scholarly appetite, but a critic feels other responsibilities, naturally, besides those of scholarship—indeed, scholarship can sometimes make a mess of criticism. So much matter has accumulated for critical attention, all vibrant with the personal touch of authorship, that even for the conscientious it must be difficult to decide what weight to give to evidence that certain components of the authorial matter did not originate in the authorial mind. The self-emphatic seal of authorship soon charms away the lie’s initial sense of the significance of the discovery, and focus-upon-it blurs. Not only is the question “And what further?” not asked, but the documented fact becomes immediately submerged and subsumed in a description of the situation of which the fact was part that gives the critic more elbow-room than mere fact.
Mr. Kirkham describes Mr. Graves as revising his attitude to poetry under influence, “much of which was now occupied with defining and analysing an ethic of the emotions and behavior which is closely related to Laura Riding’s, as expressed, for instance, in Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928) and The World and Ourselves (1938).” Not only is the first item instanced in no wise textually adduced: the second item, which is brought by quotation into critical court, is a small portion of the articulated whole of my thought of the period in question. That whole was no background of influence to which ‘much’ of Mr. Graves’ activity as a poet was ‘closely related.’ That whole was an action of a primary order of vision and comprehension, and its values, ‘ideas,’ belonged organically to it: people could share, or try to share, in it (and it was shaped towards being shared in by others), but it was not a point vantage from which to revise a former attitude, or define and analyse an ethic of the emotions and behavior. Mr. Graves had no need of revisions, or of ethic-creating.
Here at hand was a pattern of related value-notions, embracing the woman-man problem in its aspect of universal significance, and conceptions such as that of history come to its term, and time to its finalities. In my thinking, the categorically separated functions termed intellectual, moral, spiritual, emotional, were brought into union, into joint immediacy; other conceptions put the sun and moon in their right rational places as emblems of poetic emotionalism, and lengthened the perspective of Origin back from the skimpy historical heavens of masculine divinity through a spacious dominion of religious symbolism, pre-sided over, for the sake of poetic justice, by a thing I called mother-god. Here was a unity of thought practiceable widely, variedly, strictly, with latitudes combining ascesis with the pursuit of literal fulfilments of the good potentials of being, not yet more than figuratively enjoyed; and a rationale of linguistic proofing against the play of literary temptations on the poetic, and prose, roof of the tongue—excellence of word tied into truth’s linguistic anatomy (not a matter of mere preachment, this, but a sustained impartment to the writings of interested associates — with some lessoning in the form of demonstration of the linguistic bad in the reputedly literary good). And, of one internality with the rest, not dependent on external assistance (from psychology, for instance), a critical diagnostics of workaday practicality, simplifying judgements to unfrightened identifications (as, the mendacious drive of Yeats, the mortuary distinction, safe from living vicissitudes, of Eliot, the Dylan Thomas equations of juvenile intractability with poetic integrity). Etcetera.
And all this was under the auspices of what I have since called the ‘creed’ of poetry, which sounds the hope of that “love or utterance” (a same miracle of “knowing the words for what we mean”) which “shall preserve us / From than other literature / We fast exerted to perpetuate / The moral chatter of appearance.” The quoted words are from one of the last poems I wrote. Though I ultimately renounced poetry, I did not renounce the creed it harbored, which has pined in the grip of its craft. And I think well enough of all I put forth, formally and informally, from the poetic center to which I orientated my logical sensitivity, to say of it that, even with its flaws of poetic falling-short of the actual truth-line, it was, as far as it went, a uniquely abundant provision, affording exercise of all kinds to the self-improving faculties—for a lifetime, it might seem.
Although Mr. Kirkham, to be properly informed on the underestimated phenomenon that he terms 'influence,’ would need to consult, at the least, the published entirety of my work, from before the cited Anarchism, etc., to" close of the period in question (1939), and to do this with continual airing of his judgement of fumy preconception (not all his fault), what he found in The World and Ourselves ought—in a normal atmosphere—to suffice to establish that what I said here (in somewhat publicist manner) was vitally of my determination, and that the finding of the same or the like in what others said (be it without marks of derivation-identity) should be interpreted accordingly. As to the letter Mr. Graves contributed to the book, featuring the man-woman relationship in large terms of definition: it would require some extended study (and clear-aired evaluation) to apprehend that the theme of the man-woman relationship as embodying principles at the core of being, with attendant characterizations of the respective nature of woman-character and man- character of a radically new temper, was part and parcel of my working vision of the universal outcome spelt in the human outcome (thought I industriously endeavored to share with others in what I called ‘the work’.) There was no need of ‘developing awareness’ in this regard. It was all there to my associates, as far as I succeeded in those times in developing the theme, and I was there to assist in their trying themselves out in this and other thematic areas; a profuse exemplification of this in the Epilogue volumes, of which I was editor and Graves associate editor—much of the assistance is evident as editorial lance, but much is textually unmarked (was so, in glad voluntariness). — As to the uneasy period of ‘moral’ emphasis of which Mr. Kirkham speaks: piety is a danger, where the ideas of ‘goodness’ are not autochthonous, and I was sensitive to this, generally. But such piety cannot be plucked out, any more than can other deliberate propensities. Later, when the personality feels liberated to its single devices, and with ‘achieved possession’ of the goodness,’ then the piety is (out of ‘honest human nature’?) diluted with cynicism, and all is done with an agnostic ‘poise of being’ that makes the sacred and profane one uniformly fine stretch of literary ploughland, so that there can be doing unlimited. (As to doing, and the male zest for it, Four Unposted Letters To Catherine (1930) contained some modest little thoughts—which the fact of a B.B.C. reproduction of it some years ago proved to be still viable. I quote a little. “People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make for not thinking with doing.” “ . . The wrong kind of doing is doing people do ... in order to prove to themselves and other people that they are people. . . .” “The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this is a world ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but over-doing. . . .” But, I wander.)
I compress what I might further say into (1) the opinion that Mr. Kirkham could form a better historical understanding of his subject by beginning at the beginning and reading forward instead of reading the later back into the earlier, and (2) a profession of regret that such comments as I have made should need to be made by myself.
Laura (Riding) Jackson