Laura (Riding) Jackson

The Independent, 5 September 1991 (6 September 1991)

ALTHOUGH it is as a gloriously practical visionary of language that Laura (Riding) Jackson will eventually be justly valued, it is by her utterly distinctive poetry, which forms part only of her early achievements, that she is at present best known Yet even the Collected Poems of Laura Riding (as she was known from 1926 to 1941), which was hailed by Robert Fitzgerald on its publication in 1938 as "a kind of Principia [of] the art of language”, containing “the furthest advanced, the most personal and the purest” of contemporary poems, is still remarkably ignored, underknown or, where known, misvalued. Almost as much so as are her uniquely thoughtful and passionately argued later writings.

This strange situation, which impugns the spiritual alertness of our age, can be explained only in part by Laura (Riding) Jackson's renunciation of poetry (but not of her poems) half a century ago. After all, it is now nearly 30 years since she began (in a BBC Third Programme talk and poems-reading, April 1962) to explain her reasons for that characteristically principled, uncompromising and truth-governed decision, and over 20 since she confirmed them in book form, in the preface to her Selected Poems (1970).

Her words on those occasions show the fulcrum on which her life’s work turned They also remind us that her very first published essay was entitled “A Prophecy or A Plea” (1925) , and that the sometimes stormy course of her indivisible work and life can best be understood as that of a prophet and a pleader.

In brief, Laura Riding, the poet and critic — whose original 1938 preface to her Collected Poems be-
longs among the handful of great defences of poesie in English — had always viewed poetry (with a seriousness more central even than Matthew Arnold’s), as “the universal type of the spiritual best in language”. But her very devotion to her poetic practice — which was of altogether another order than Arnold's -showed  he inexorably that the equivalence between poetry and truth that I had tried to establish was inconsistent  with tbc relation they have to each other as — the one —art and — the other — the reality."

As she put it, in 1970, her view had been that “poetry invites vision of a lasting, living fact awaiting our arrival at a state of grace in which we know it, "speak it." The revolution that she accomplished for her own understanding - and thus potentially for all language —users — showed that that magnificently expressed invitation is implicit in language itself, as its principle of truth, and should not, cannot be arrogated to a medium carrying “all the sublimated selfishness of art ". Thus what Coleridge might have called the religatory (or “binding”) powers of language are there for all our speaking

Her fresh vision also eliminated the class-divisiondivision which Laura (Riding) Jackson had come to see as inherent in poetry, between its 'silent laity' audience and the poets themselves, who, as she said in 1962, "must function as if they were people on the inside track of linguistic expression, people endowed with the highest language-powers" thus blocking the "discovery that everyone is on this inside track

That “discovery” provides a good point from which to view Laura (Riding) Jackson’s varied published writing of the last 30 years, with at its centre her “personal evangel" The Telling (1972). In that far-reaching statement of faith she views herself as “speaking to the page” rather than writing; she becomes, and points the way to others becoming, a teller, a rebeginner in the telling of what she had long before christened “the one story” of human beings and the cosmos.

Central to the as yet unpublished portion of the writing of Laura Jackson’s later years — which includes material enough for several substantial collections of essays, memoirs, and criticism, moral, social, literary and spiritual — is the project on which she worked with her second husband, Schuyler B. Jackson, for nearly three decades after their marriage in 1941, and which she completed in the years following his death in 1968. This is Rational Meaning: a new foundation for the definition of words, a highly original attempt to inspirit both lexicographers and common readers with a revived sense of language as centred on a natural system of the mind’s exact meanings. Although the direct dictionary- project which eventually gave rise to Rational Meaning had originated with Laura Riding while she was still a poet, in Majorca early in the 1930s (Jacob Bronowski was one early assistant), Schuyler Jackson was the first and only truly "intellectually and morally companionate mind, as to the things of language” that she found to work with. Those who have glimpsed the text of Rational Meaning have found it no passive monument to that meeting of minds, but a live thing. (It is clear, incidentally, that nobody would have needed to tell the Jacksons how far removed was their line of thought from the general trend and sympathies of long-current academic linguistics.)

From her beginning, born Laura Reichenthal in 1901, she possessed, and soon came to know it, her own “most singular device” — her equivalent, perhaps, of Milton’s “That one talent that tis death to hide". (I quote where she would not have been likely to: she quoted others as rarely as she quoted herself, preferring always to “say things over" in freshly-chosen words for fresh occasions.) However, she came to see such a talent as widely potential, indeed “the gift of every Cradle", although in experience the limitation remained, as another poem had noted, that “Of all the world, few inherit themselves": the Cradle-gift had, seemingly, been "driven out by Toys”.

To the end of her life — and often in the grip of almost unremitting pain — her spirited bearing could remind those who knew her of, for instance, the terms of her encouragement to readers (in 1935) to emulate her fondly respected Hans Andersen and “make child's play oh your immortal souls". Or remind equally, from that period, of her saying that "everything that happens in thought is fortunate, for to think is to enter into the grace of poetic "unity ". (In her later thought she would, simply, have dropped the “poetic".)

Too many children who play in happy seriousness can yet grow up to be not mature but “adultish": one of those coinages, even more practical than delightful, for which readers are indebted to Laura Jackson. Another, and a more fundamental, is “somethingness" — as representing the good pole of that fateful choice for or against nothingness which every human person makes, once or     many times, however inchoately. As she eloquently wrote in 1937, in published Private Correspondence on Reality with Robert Graves:

Fundamental somethingness is not proved or disproved by what becomes of each of us, personally. It is the implicit source from which our existence derives; and indeed we disappear, and to petty nothingness, if we do not belabour ourselves, without mercy to our individualistic obduracies, until we are the passionately flexible instruments by which fundamental somethingness is transformed from an implicit into an explicit reality.

And again, there,

We may each have a private purpose in being, and by this purpose have succeeded in being. But the right to exist at all depends on a primary act of acknowledgement; on the articulation of reality, above thc articulation of self.

       Thus, long before such writings as her 1976 critique, Twentieth-Century Literary Individualism, this most highly individualised of persons had seen the irredeemable inability of individualism to answer to her sense of an unfilled (but fillable) vacancy at the heart of contemporary understanding.

The relationship between Laura Riding and Robert Graves, in their work and during 14 years of their lives from 1926 to 1939, has already become the subject of a quite extensive, and a largely grisly, literature. Some of it is pitched at a level redeemable, if at all, only by silence. Where there is factual record to put straight, it should centre on the actual nature and calibre of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s outlook, work and intellect. All that needs to be noted here is that what Graves published about Riding during the actual years of their working partnership is on the whole a reliable guide to the aspects of her with which it deals. They were truly equal partners, as she always acknowledged, in the Seizin Press in its early years of printing and publishing fine limited editions of their and others’ work: when Seizin became an originating house in partnership with Constable, her taste and editorial flair naturally took the lead. Graves’s own estimate of their relative capacities is, again, correctly reflected in the precedence of her name over his in the authorship of the pioneering and lastingly influential Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), and of the entertaining and combative Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928).

Their stance in the Pamphlet led Riding (and Graves, for a decade) thereafter to contribute only to serious anthologies whose editors were prepared to view contributors as cooperative volunteers rather than as conscripts. If more poets did this, there would be fewer and much better anthologies, indeed Riding acknowledgedly had a shaping effect on Michael Roberts s classic Faber Book of Modem Verse (1936, reissued 1982), on Gwendolen Murphy's The Modem Poet (1938), and on other compilations. It was in the context of Yeats’s refusal in 1936 to be thus editorially co-operative (in his Oxford Book of English Verse) that he perpetrated his description of Ridings supposed poetic “school” as “too reasonable, too truthful", adding that “poets should be good liars”: remarks the more revealing in the light of her eventual reasons for renouncing poetry.

Any consideration of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s work does well to bring to mind lines from the poem "The Talking World", in which she utters what may stand as a warning:

The nicest thought is only gossip
If merchandized into plain language and sold
For so much understanding to the minute...

Indeed, her thought is both profoundly simple in its essence and very much against the dominantly superficial grain and temper of modern intellectuality. For both those reasons, its implications are far from being easy or comfortable. Hers is work that tests every serious reader, including those who have long found it without exception the most rewarding writing of this century.

Some words Laura Jackson wrote privately to a friend in 1979 exemplify her grasp of the human birth-right as naturally uniting the personal — the domestic, even the homely — with the cosmic (a poetic forerunner is her transcendent “The Flowering Urn").

Death is the reality of the necessity of an end, for that which has a limit. But the coming to a term of the limited is not mere predestined nullification: the mark of the end is the mark of rightness, and so death has, thus, aspects of significance and char-
acter which spell the perfect and the true, not mortality and loss.

Alan J. Clark

Laura Reichenthal (Laura Riding),poet, born New York City 16 January 1901 books include The Close Chaplet 1926, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (with Robert Graves) 1927, A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (with Robert Graves) 1928, Poems, a Joking Word 1930, Twenty Poems Less 1930, No Decency Left (as Barbara Rich, with Robert Graves) 1932, The Life of the Dead 1933, A Trojan Ending 1937, Len Lye and the Problem of Popular Films 1938, Collected Poems 1938, Selected Poems: In Five Sets 1970, The Telling 1972, It Has Taken Long 1976, The Poems of Laura Riding 1980. Description of Life 1980, married 1920 Louis Gottschalk (marriage dissolved 1925), 1941 Schuyler B. Jackson (died 1968), died Wabasso Florida 2 September 1991.