Poems a Joking Word



Laura Riding published eleven books of poetry between 1926 and 1938, each of which had some kind of specific purpose in spelling out the progress of her thought as it clarified and ramified over those intensely active years. Between the volumes of poetry and some thirteen books of prose, to say nothing of her production of the four volumes of Epilogue, there was barely a pause for breath before a cut-off point in 1939, after which she turned away from poetry; and the flow of publications ceased (although not the activity of her mind or her pen) for over a quarter of a century.

With that background the eighteen months pause in publication between Love as Love, Death as Death in December 1928 and Poems: A Joking Word in July 1930 represents the most significant break in the otherwise continuous flow of the poet’s work thus far. Her work had in fact been interrupted by the catastrophic events in her life. In April 1929 she stepped over the third-storey window-sill of her and Robert Graves’ apartment in London after a love affair, or perhaps more true to say, a test or ordeal of love and seriousness, involving her, Graves, Geoffrey Phibbs and Nancy Nicholson.

After coming round, with severe injuries and in excruciating pain, she had faced for a while the possibility both of the permanent loss of the use of her legs (something movingly touched upon in her poem ‘What to Say When the Spider’, which was written in hospital)[i] and of prosecution, as until 1961 attempted suicide was a criminal offence in England. In the event there was no prosecution, although the prospect had prompted Graves to ask Edward Marsh, secretary to Winston Churchill and friend to poets and poetry, to use his influence to help avert it. Happily, too, following surgery and physiotherapy, and with her characteristic determination, she gradually recovered the ability to walk, although spinal and facial injuries left her with life-long physical ill-effects. In late October 1929, after a period in France where they visited Gertrude Stein, Riding and Graves arrived in Mallorca, where they soon decided to move into the village of Deià for what turned out to be the most settled and all-but-final period of Riding’s poetic career. Her Collected Poems was published just months after Riding and Graves were forced to leave their adopted home by the incursion of the Spanish Civil War into Mallorca in 1937

Other poems refer to the excruciating pain (‘Here Beyond’) and to the disablement (‘Rejoice, Simple’) and loss of beauty (‘This’) but ‘What to Say When the Spider’ is the only poem to evoke the pathos of her plight: ‘[…] The spider does what| Does does dies does it not| Not live and then not| Legs legs then none| When the spider does dies […]’;  ‘[…] Death cease death| To know say I| Oh pity poor pretty […]’. The lack of sympathy that has been in general shown to Riding may be caused in part by her failure (if such it is) to appeal for it.