Poet: A Lying Word
Introduction by Jack Blackmore
The blurb on the flyleaf of the original edition, no doubt the author’s own, reads:
‘Poet: A Lying Word is Laura Riding's first collected volume since Poems: A Joking Word, published over three years ago. In her previous work, Miss Riding has been bringing the language of poetic thought closer to its final energy and purity; and the influence of her work is apparent in the increasing precision with which contemporary poets express themselves. In this book one not only learns how to think poetically; one is in the country where poetry is the language spoken.’
The idea of reprinting this book emerged during the course of my study of Laura Riding’s Collected Poems. As I progressed through the poems it became evident that the poems of her penultimate collection, Poet: A Lying Word occupy a special place in the author’s work, representing both a crisis in and the climax to her poetic career. The original edition of the book, published 84 years ago, is now rare. It has been seldom read, and less appreciated, even by the small band of those who admire her work. My own copy languished in the public libraries of Stepney and Croydon after 1934, only being issued twice (presumably to the same reader) on 16 and 30 October 1976 before being withdrawn from circulation. Yet although Riding’s poetry has been bypassed by the reading public, academic, critical or lay, she has been an acknowledged (and unacknowledged) influence on more than one generation of poets, including the far better known figures of Robert Graves, W.H. Auden and John Ashbery.
The poems of Poet: A Lying Word were all produced between 1930 and 1933, during the most settled period of Laura Riding’s poetic life. She had moved to Deià, Majorca with Robert Graves in October 1929 while recovering from her suicide attempt earlier that year. Shortly after that event, in 1930, she published Poems: A Joking Word in which she effectively summed up her poetic career to that point. Meanwhile her new home and life was celebrated in one of her most accessible and attractive long poems, Laura and Francisca, published separately in 1931.
Poet: A Lying Word included only one poem, ‘Short of Strange’ that had been published in Poems: A Joking Word, one indication of a break and a new direction after 1930 — about which there is much more to be said in the following section. Poet: A Lying Word is the most elaborately organised of her collections, divided into five parts, each with a mysterious rubric referring to the seasons, and their imminent demise. The final part is entitled ‘Failure of Season’, picking up on a theme from (amongst several other poems) the opening lines of the title poem:
You have now come with me, I have now come with you, to the season that should be winter and is not: we have not come back.1
All fifteen poems in Part I were taken, some much altered, from the limited edition Twenty Poems Less (Paris: Hours Press, 1930) from which a further poem, ‘Zero’ was also chosen, rewritten and retitled ‘The Flowering Urn’ for Part IV. The twenty-one poems of Twenty Poems Less (ending in ‘Zero’) often read like rough sketches for the more finished poems which appear in the subsequent volume.2 Of the fifteen poems in Part II, the first seven — if the set of six fragments entitled ‘Lines in Short Despite of Time’ is counted as one — were extracted or adapted from another limited edition, Though Gently (Majorca: Seizin Press, 1930). The rest of the poems were new, with the exception of the long excerpt taken from Laura and Francisca which ends Part IV.
Altogether, between the publication of Poems: A Joking Word in July 1930 and Poet: A Lying Word in December 1933 Riding had published four more volumes of poetry (the three mentioned above plus The Life of the Dead in 1933) and four other substantial prose works — a period of exceptional productivity.3 Productivity of course is one thing, quality is another, and the rest of this introduction will argue that Poet: A Lying Word is the most original collection of poetry, and in important respects the finest, of the twentieth century
What is the place of Poet: A Lying Word in the oeuvre of Riding? Joyce Wexler, the author of the first book about Riding, and the only one to attempt to describe her poetic development volume by published volume describes the work as a temporary aberration:
For a brief period, Riding’s pursuit of the essential led her to regret her need for language. By 1933, when she published Poet: A Lying Word she expressed anger at the human need for words to articulate thought. Compared to perfect understanding of truth, human language seemed profane—a confining physical encumbrance. She mocked poets for pretending they had superior powers to perceive and reveal truth.4
The similarity of the title to her 1930 collection Poet: A Lying Word suggests that she intended to correct her earlier conception of the poet.
The statements that she ‘for a brief period’ regretted the need for language, and that ‘she expressed anger at the human need for words to articulate thought’ are based, I think, on a misunderstanding of some poems, particularly ‘Come, Words, Away.’ By contrast with the eight pages devoted in her book to an account of just five of the poems of Poet: A Lying Word Professor Wexler devotes twenty-two pages to ten of the later ‘Poems Continual’, praising and contrasting their serenity and ‘impersonal perspective’ with the ‘wrestling’ and the ‘intensity of her personal involvement’ (which is an accurate description, as we shall see, but need not be one of disparagement) in the preceding poems. As evidence that Riding herself did not view the volume as an aberration, she chose all but one of the poems in Poet: A Lying Word (the exception being ‘Memory of the World’) for her Collected Poems in 1938, and she subsequently chose nineteen of them, a higher proportion than from other volumes (or from ‘Poems Continual) for her Selected Poems: In Five Sets in 1970.5
On the other hand Wexler, who deserves respect for her pioneering appreciation of Riding’s poetry, was right to notice the difference between Poet: A Lying Word and the poetry that both preceded it and succeeded it. Riding herself, in one of her rare and valuable commentaries specifically upon her own poetry, remarked in 1972:
Past the half-way mark, historically, in my poems, and up to the last phase, I am much preoccupied with the effort to make personally explicit the identity of myself poet and myself one moved to try to speak with voiced consciousness of the linguistic and human unities of speaking: I am restive insofar as this identity is only an implicit principle in my poetic speaking. There is also at work at the same time an effort to intensify in specificness the comprehensive reference I intended generally that my poems should have. The two heightened impulsions, working to bring within the poetic frame an explicitness and a specificness that it cannot contain and to which it cannot expand, produced within the poems themselves a struggle between compression and completeness of utterance. I cannot briefly make the explanation of the peculiarities of this phase easier.6
The half-way mark is clear in the sequence of her published poetry, and that mark is represented by the poems collected in Poet: A Lying Word which also preceded ‘the last phase’ which is represented by ‘Poems Continual’ in her Collected Poems. As noted above, all but one of the poems of Poet: A Lying Word were included in her Collected Poems: three were placed towards the end of ‘Poems of Immediate Occasion’, the second of the four sections of the main body of Collected Poems, while the rest make up the entire third section, ‘Poems of Final Occasion’ — with the sole addition of the last poem there ‘Disclaimer of the Person’. There is no doubt that ‘Disclaimer of the Person’ belongs with the poems of Poet: A Lying Word as it exemplifies the ‘heightened impulsions’ described by the author above. It is an essential part of Riding’s poetic apocalypse. For that reason, and also because the two parts of the first version of the poem are very rare they are included as an appendix to this republication.7
The nature of the break, described so eloquently in the 1972 recording, between the earlier and the later work is in the nature of a life-changing category shift. My interpretation is that Poet: A Lying Word was the point at which she threw her all into the crucible of poetry to fulfil her spiritual — and at that time also her poetic — ambitions. This interpretation is in part supported by the blurb on the book’s original flyleaf quoted in full at the beginning of this introduction: ‘In this book one not only learns how to think poetically; one is in the country where poetry is the language spoken.’
By contrast with the poems of Poet: A Lying Word which are frequently (though by no means always) characterized by extravagant neologizing, riddling contradictions and paradoxes, and startling irruptions into the reader’s consciousness, most of the ‘Poems Continual’ share, in line with Wexler’s observations, a restrained elegance of phrasing, supple rhythms and more conventional ‘poetic’ beauty. This chimes with their author’s retrospective commentary that ‘A certain relaxing of the complex preoccupiedness I have described is perceptible in the very last phase.’ It is as though this last period of poetic activity was to some extent a lap of honour, an exercise of her poetic gifts. At the same time she could explore the implications of her hard-won achievement in terms of: ‘If what I’ve found out is true then how do I, how do you, live with that? How carry on from that foundation?’ There is a sense that she had reached poetry’s limit and was preparing to go beyond it. By 1935 she was already going further in prose (in some respects) than she could in poetry — in the ground-breaking essay ‘The Idea of God’, in Epilogue, for example, and in the writings on woman (and man) only gathered together for publication in The Word “Woman” after her death.8
This reference forward to the prose returns us to the place of Poet: A Lying Word in her poetry. As a reader progresses through the Collected Poems what had been implicit if not at all obvious in the earlier, more compact poems becomes overt in the more discursive ‘Poems of Final Occasion’ (and in one or two of the poems leading up to it). There is a poem in which she meets and directly addresses ‘God’ (‘Then Follows’); there are poems in which her cosmogony of ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ and ‘earth’ is unveiled (‘Earth’, ‘All Things’, ‘Bishop Modernity’, ‘The Signs of Knowledge’, ‘Disclaimer of the Person’). She is ever more explicit about her understanding of what it means to be a woman, with examples throughout the collection, but notably ‘Biography of a Myth’, ‘After Smiling’ and ‘Two Loves, One Madness’. She made direct reference to these features of her poems of this stage in her 1972 commentary:
Two points of particular counsel may be useful. The first is generally applicable. Nowhere should I be taken as speaking by what are called ‘symbols’. If, for instance I say ‘the sun which multiplied’ or ‘the moon which singled’ as I do in one poem, I am endeavouring to indicate actualities of physical circumstance in which our inner crucialities of human circumstance are set. My moon may look like the old tired poetical symbol, and I like an old tired poetic romanticist, but I truly meant that the moon’s being what it is where it is intervenes in our outer circumstances as a negator of the sun’s fostering excessiveness in our regard, both lush and destructive—as a tempering counter-agency, relatively little but near. However foolishly mystical this may seem, nothing so far learned by scientists or experienced by astronauts disproves this.
Before dismissing this disavowal of ‘symbolism’ out of hand it is worth considering how closely Riding’s thought on poetic creativity and science compares with that of Coleridge. The latter had a belief in the unifying power of the ‘esemplastic’ imagination, and developed ‘Romantic epistemology’, a theory of knowledge that went beyond the method of objective science. For him the driving force of the creative imagination to get at the inherent essence of external objects was love, a deep desire to know other than ourselves. Neither Coleridge nor Riding was confined by professional boundaries to literature. Their thought, whether in poetry or prose, on matters of language or religion, was of a piece, connate.
The paragraph quoted above continues:
The second point of counsel concerns my use of the word ‘woman’ and the introduction of the fact of woman, in poems of this phase in particular. My use was literal on a large scale. I meant the common identity, woman, of women. I conceived of women under this identity as agency of the intrinsic unity-nature of being, and knew myself as of the personality of woman—as of this identity: and I endeavoured to make the poems include expressly the sense of this as it was actively present in me.9
To conclude this section then: Poet: A Lying Word functions in Riding’s work as a book of revelation, or as she would put it more quietly in her 1938 preface ‘an uncovering of something that would otherwise remain unknown.’
What kind of poet is Riding? She does not fit at all readily into the category of ‘modernist’ for all that she (with Graves) had written with great sympathy for and understanding of modernist poets in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927). In the ‘Conclusion’ of that work she had identified the constriction caused by the critical self-consciousness that she found inhabited modernist poetry:
As the poet, if a true poet, is one by nature and not by effort, he must be seen writing as unconsciously as regards time as his ordinary reader lives.
She has had a destructive effect upon poetry:
The modernist poet therefore has an exaggerated preoccupation with criticism. […] There is an increased strictness and experimenting in the construction of the poem, and an increased consciousness of what the poem should not be. But, so far, critical self-consciousness has been only a negative element in the making of poetry.10
These arguments at the conclusion of A Survey were Riding’s and not Graves’s. They were taken from Riding’s Contemporaries and Snobs. This is the meaning of the note at the beginning of A Survey where the authors say:
This book represents a word by word collaboration; except for the last chapter, which is a revision by both authors for the purposes of this volume of an essay separately written and printed by one of them.11
In Contemporaries Riding’s argument as to the damage caused to poetry by the preoccupation with criticism (which is targeted primarily at the leading poet and critic of the day, T. S. Eliot), is developed even more trenchantly than in A Survey. (It is intriguing to recall that originally Graves had been planning to publish a work on modern poetry for Eliot’s publishing house, Faber; the plan was superseded by the Riding-Graves collaboration.) The criticism of poetry in the previous chapters of A Survey becomes in its ‘Conclusion’ — and is even more so in Contemporaries — a criticism of criticism and of the institutional nature of literature itself:
More and more the poet has been made to conform to literature instead of literature to the poet — literature being the name given by criticism to works inspired by or obedient to criticism. Less and less is the poet permitted to rely on personal authority. The word genius, formerly used to denote the power to intensify a sense of life into a sense of literature, has been boycotted by criticism; not so much because it has become gross and meaningless through sentimentality as because professional literature develops a shame of the person, a snobbism against personal self-reliance which is the nature of genius. What is all current literary modernism but the will to extract the literary sense of the age from the Zeitgeist at any cost to creative independence?12
In a series of essays in Anarchism Is Not Enough published only three months later Riding developed the positive obverse of these negative arguments to set out her bold and sweeping vision for poetry and poets. It is a defence of originality (in its deepest meaning) as the core value; of the person as the agent; and of poems as the process and product of the self’s individuation. She is for analysis and opposed to synthesis; for ‘impulsion’ and opposed to reaction; she is for breaking down and not constructing ‘reality’; for the ‘individual unreal’ and against the ‘social real’. (As examples of what she prefers she cites a speech from Defoe’s Roxana and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)
In some ways this language of genius and originality is familiar to us from the Romantics, but she (with Graves) had shown in A Survey, in a brilliant selection of almost indistinguishable passages from Shelley, Byron, Keats, Tupper, Wordsworth and Coleridge, how constrained these poets were (by contrast only with Blake) by ‘spiritual elevation’, by gentility and membership of the governing class: ‘these poets only wrote authentic poetry when off their guard.’13
She herself aimed, by contrast, to ‘set a new standard of poetic originality’, to give a ‘complete range of poetic experience controlled with sensitive wisdom’ and to do so in poems ‘very consciously the work of a woman.’1⁴
So much for the promissory advertisement. What about the poems themselves? Coming to them with an education in the tradition of poetry they can seem so peculiar (to use her own word about her poetic originality in her manifesto poem ‘As Well as Any Other’): they are so ‘distinguished in nature or character’, so ‘unlike others, singular, unusual, odd’ — that the reading mind struggles to grasp them.15 They do not ingratiate themselves, or suggest that the poet is only saying what you have thought but ‘ne’er so well expressed.’ The poet’s assumption of authority grates, for those used to a habitual self-deprecation in poets’ presentation. The issue is acknowledged, with firmness and humour, in ‘The Courtesies of Authorship’:
Now that you have read of,
You will want to see.
I can only take you to the place
And let you not see.
Then you may choose freely
Between my book and your eye.
You will undoubtedly prefer your eye,
To not see for yourself.
I shall be delighted to withdraw my book
In favour of your however blind eye.
But I will not withdraw my book
In favour of any book of yours,
In favour of time-begging prophecy.
There is too a lack of deference either to God or to nature; she had, as she says simply in ‘Pride of Head’, a very early poem, ‘no precedent in nature.’ As a poet she is in action on the universe in her poems, not in reaction to experience, which is what we are used to. And she does not leave us alone; she has (pace Keats) designs on us.
My suggestion is that it may be best in the first instance simply to read the poems in Poet: A Lying Word or at least those that you can ‘get into’ straight through in one go. The remarkable range and scope of her poems should be evident at this first survey of the work — long poems and short, elegant and convoluted, gnomic and explicated, humorous as well as always grave. Each of the five parts builds up a momentum. In Part I it is fairly easy to grasp some of the meaning of the first two poems, ‘As to a Frontispiece’ and ‘There are as Many Questions as Answers.’ Each of these poems introduces language and themes which are developed throughout the book. Part II, which begins with poems from the highly experimental Though Gently is more difficult to enter, but ‘The Biography of a Myth’, ‘The Wind, the Clock, the We’ and ‘The Talking World’ are more accessible. ‘The Biography of a Myth’ makes a good introduction to the poet’s story of woman and of herself, a story both mythical and yet intensely personal. Part II ends with the encounter with ‘God’ in ‘There Follows’, when what follows is she herself writing poems ending in a sort of aspiration towards silence:
Ah, the pity of it for me,
To be by name a poet [. . .]
A creature neither man nor God. [. . .]
Ah the pity of it for you,
To be by nature man or by nature God,
And poet by name only to affirm
That beyond man and God lies only
Such beyond as poet alone can affirm,
Being creature of name only—
Ah the pity of it for us all.
Perhaps we had better not be going.
Perhaps I had better write another poem
And, if necessary, yet another,
Until a description follows
Of an interval after which
There’s no return to time again,
To paradoxing truth between
Two similar poles of human logic—
After which no description
Unless words have wordless echo
As sound derived of silence
Might break unheard against itself
And echo silently
Through infinite parabolas
Of no description following.
The pressure builds and is released in Part III into a powerful sequence of poems: ‘After Smiling’, ‘It is not Sad’, ‘I Am’ and ‘As to Food’ which develop further her story of woman and herself, and the strict contradictory relation between man to woman. It intensifies in an even more powerful sequence in Part IV: ‘Bishop Modernity’, ‘Two Loves, One Madness’, ‘The Unthronged Oracle’ and ‘Come, Words, Away.’ In Part V the book is brought to an anti-poetic climax with ‘The Signs of Knowledge’ and ‘Poet: A Lying Word’ before subsiding into the prayer-cum-blessing of ‘Benedictory Close’ and the admonitory morning-after reflections of ‘Apocryphal Numbers.’
Amidst all the sound and fury of these major poems are serene and beautiful little poems which appear as if condensed like dew out of the atmosphere of her thought: ‘Earth’, ‘With the Face’ and ‘The Flowering Urn.’ These are poems which are attractive at first reading, but do not readily yield their concentrated meaning.
Following up on this first read-through we can begin again with the introductory poem ‘As to a Frontispiece’ which opens with the lines: ‘If you will choose the portrait, | I will write the work accordingly.’ After considering the alternatives of a ‘German countenance’ and a ‘tidy creature, perhaps American’ the poet reveals that
I have a work but, I regret,
No preliminary portrait
And if you can forego one,
We might between us illustrate
This posthumous identity.1⁶
For all its humour and apparent casualness the poem can be seen to introduce several threads that are woven through the subsequent poems. One of them is the idea of companionship and conversation, implicit here in the suggestion that collaboration between reader and poet/poem may be possible, indeed necessary, in order to illustrate ‘This posthumous identity’. The reader is quite frequently addressed directly in the poems that follow, while ‘The Courtesies of Authorship’ and ‘Poet: A Lying Word’ focus on the nature of the relationship between reader and poet and/or poem in an unusually intense way.
‘This posthumous identity’ introduces a second thread: the suggestion of poetic immortality-in-death. Riding’s use of the word ‘death’ to indicate what is final and immutable has exasperated and confounded some critics.1⁷ The word frequents her poems; here ‘posthumous’, with its derivation from the Latin for ‘after burial in earth’, suggests a subtle link with the word ‘Earth’, as in the poem of that title (which is fifth in the opening sequence). Her use of the word ‘Earth’ or ‘earth’, while seemingly figurative, is most helpfully read as ‘literal on a large scale’ as she herself says of her use of the word ‘woman’ referred to above. The word is both amplified and concentrated in the poems of the book. It is amplified in ‘Laura and Francisca’, where it is used to describe the journey inward:
For death’s a now like earth on which you stand
And only readable by looking near ….
Which closes up the eye? Then how to see? [….]
Then where am I […]
I lie from Deya inward by true leagues
Of earthliness from the sun and sea
Turning inward to nowhere-on-earth.1⁸
The association of ‘earth’ with ‘death’ is plain in the most explicit (and outwardly bizarre and unpoetic) poem of her cosmogony, ‘The Signs of Knowledge’ where the second of the two signs (the first being ‘unlove of the sun’) is ‘unlife of the earth’, a phrase repeated three more times for the avoidance of doubt! These uses of ‘earth’ help us to understand the more concentrated use in the poem ‘Earth’ itself which begins ‘Have no wide fears for Earth: | Its universal name is ‘Nowhere’ and climaxes in a yet bolder statement at the end of the poem:
Earth is your heart
Which has become your mind
But still beats ignorance
Of all it knows—
As present miles deny the compact man
Whose self-mistrusting past they are.
Have no wide fears for Earth:
Destruction on wide fears shall fall only.1⁹
So the use of ‘Earth’ or ‘earth’ is complex, but if we return to ‘posthumous’ the simplest meaning is that, in completing the poem, it is ‘dead’.
A third thread is the subtle play of appearance, or portraiture, against identity. The poems repeatedly ask the question: ‘Who or what am I?’ In one sense the whole of her poetry is a gigantic or minuscule self-portrait, one moment microcosmic the next macrocosmic in scale. There are glimpses of self-portraiture, of what in later life she entitled ‘The Person I Am’, throughout her poems.2⁰ In some of her poems before Poet: A Lying Word we can envisage the girl-poet thinking, as in ‘Herself’ (in ‘Forgotten Girlhood’), dreaming in ‘Incarnations’, and resisting furious anger in ‘Because I Sit Here So’. There is also ‘Pride of Head’ in which she describes her physical self, only twenty-three lines in Collected Poems, but a poem of seven sections (‘Hair’, ‘Head Itself’, ‘Forehead’, ‘Eyes’, ‘Nose’, ‘Ears’, and ‘Mouth’) covering eight pages of The Close Chaplet.21 The portrayal may appear quite general to her gender, and may often be masked by mythical personae, as in ‘Chloe Or …’, but as the poems progress the portrayal becomes more personal, as in ‘The Tiger’, more direct, as in ‘The Rugged Black of Anger’. In the poem in which she contemplated suicide, ‘In Nineteen Twenty-Seven’, the ‘I’ who asks ‘Then where was I, of this time and my own | A double ripeness and perplexity? ’could be none other than Laura Riding.
In Poet: A Lying Word ‘After Smiling’ reads like a self-portrait of the author. In particular the second stanza, beginning ‘Now is my smile pursed smooth| Into a stillest anger on| All flesh convivial’ could be illustrated by the forbidding portrait of her by John Aldridge in 1933, contemporary with the first publication of the poem in Poet: A Lying Word and printed on the cover of this edition. She herself described the portrait as ‘a very good murderous-looking one.’22 The stanza reads:
Now is my smile pursed smooth
Into a stillest anger on
All flesh convivial
To my convivial flesh
Like scattered selves of me
Insisting right of scatteredness
And homed identity both—
As if by smiling promised.
The brilliant phrasing of ‘Like scattered selves of me | Insisting right of scatteredness | And homed identity both’ is an example of the clarity and complexity of thought that Riding could achieve in poetry.
Riding’s poetry is as unique for what it renounces as for what it espouses. As early as 1928 she gave hostages to those who would denigrate her poetry for its austerity by denouncing regularity in rhythm and rhyme, and criticising ‘false critical analogies between poetry and music’. In particular, and in direct contradiction of prevalent poetic values, she rejected the idea that poetry should have an emotional effect:
The end of poetry is not to create a physical condition which shall give pleasure to the mind. It appeals to an energy in which no distinction exists between physical and mental conditions. It does not massage, soothe, excite or entertain this energy in any way. It is this energy in a form of extraordinary strength and intactness.
At the same time there are outbreaks throughout the collection of virtuoso eloquence. A few examples are given below:
The body swimming in itself
Is dissolution’s darling—
With dripping mouth it speaks a truth
That cannot lie, in words not born yet
Out of first immortality,
All-wise impermanence. (‘There is No Land Yet’)
Then open the small secret doors
When none’s there to read awrong.
Out runs happiness in a crowd,
The saving words and hours
That come too tragic-late for souls
Gifted with their own mercy:
Denying that to themselves
Which never could be a joy,
Too orthodox maturity
For such heresy of child-remaining.
On these the grey-beard pleasures of books fall—
Pink, pundit babyhood
Whose blinking vision stammers out
A blind big-lettered foetus-future. (‘Unread Pages’)
Goodbye, I cannot bring you closer
If you prefer the ghostly way,
Keeping the living side of death.
Not I you sat with, but a pathos,
My partial image torn out of me.
Nor ever will you have me whole. (‘It is not Sad’)
And to make no mistake, write Poison on me,
To know the bottle which,
And notify your sick distrust of sweet.
Have you an appetite for death now?
Never, never, need that lack,
Self-cheated Ghost, with memory where your head
And pain where once your heart—
You own credulity’s fool.
And the bones, the sceptic corpse
That you stood up from doubting stone?
They grind the death of vanity, found long ago,
And have no death of will to ask now:
Let them to earth again, like roots torn up
With flower along that never dreamed of vase. (‘As to Food’)
When’s a man a poet then? And was he ever one?
And if a death with that slow instant stays
That is no instant, when the frightened flesh
Runs hard after the blood fleeing homeward
To previous courses and reddened turns—
That’s none of him, no part forgotten,
But of his second love a fancy
Lying man-like in her fancied arms [….]
The man’s away after the man.
She understood his wooing wrong.
He never meant her more than paper,
Nor does his shivering heart one icy line remember […]
(‘Two Loves, One Madness’)
My eyes, my mouth, my hovering hands, my intransmutable head: wherein my eyes, my mouth, my hands, my head, my body-self, are not such mortal simulacrum as everlong you builded against very death, to keep you everlong in boasted deathcourse, neverlong? I say, I say, I am not builded of you so.
(‘Poet: A Lying Word’)
If I my words am,
If the footed head which frowns them
And the handed heart which smiles them
Are this very table, chair,
This paper, pencil, taut community
Wherein enigma’s orb is word-constrained.
Does myself upon the page meet,
Does the thronging firm a name
To nod my own—witnessing
I write or am this—it is written?
What thinks the world?
Has here the time-eclipsed occasion
Grown language-present? (‘The Second Leaf’)
Towards the end of her life, long after her renunciation ‘of allegiance to poetry as a profession and faith in it as an institution’, in a commentary on her making occasional use of a ‘poetic form of pronouncement’ she remarked:
I give way in these instances to a free-will impulsion to take advantage of the special potency of poetic speech as allowing a forceful avoidance of the delay in communicative advance, the circuitous linguistic spaciousness of which prose allows. This potency inheres in poetry.23
The lines of poems quoted above give examples of that potency in practice.
Riding’s poetry and her thought generally, lack sentimentality about ‘nature’. In her Collected Poems there is not a single poem ‘identifying’ with a bird or animal as Blake did in ‘The Fly’, for example:
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
This may seem harmless enough but there is the danger that poets ‘lose themselves’ in this kind of anthropomorphism, or pathetic fallacy, which sees humanity in nature. Some of Ted Hughes’ animal poems take this to an extreme. Several of Riding’s poems in this volume oppose, and indeed can be said to reverse anthropomorphism, good examples being ‘Intelligent Prayer’, ‘Short of Strange’, and ‘Tree-Sense’. On first reflection the pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism may seem easy targets, but Riding’s real criticism is of poets whose aim (not their achievement) falls short of our full human capacity and potential for truth.
Lyricism has had of course sweet [‘humane’ in Collected Poems] use in time:
To allow the bragging population to recover
From the exertion of behaving intelligently
By intelligencing the unintelligence
Of stupid darlings also prone to think,
Though in such cases minds are only leaves, or less. (From ‘Intelligent Prayer’)
But to change to flies—
To perhaps not strange flies,
They which so prettily annoy
And with regret
See themselves killed,
Scarcely alive, scarcely dead.
Or of moths, how if turned outdoors
Next morning with goodbye,
A gratitude beyond their will
Humanizes the unasked release,
And an emotion reels away.
Such insincere hysterias
Or terrorless philosophies
Show nature’s suave proficiency in man.
(From ‘Short of Strange’)
Our humility before ‘nature’ is a false humility, it amounts to a shirking of our task and our opportunity, described by Riding in her first poetic credo in 1925. For her the prime mover is the poet, the creator is him (or her, of course):
Life is create with him. The poetry of this mood will have still the wonder, still the exaltation. But the wonder will proceed not from the accidental contacts with a life that comes to us as a visitation but from a sense of self that adventures so steadfastly, so awarely beyond it that its discoveries have the character of creation and the eternal element of self-destiny. […] For this poetry, song is not surrender but salvation.2⁴
As with (the traditional poetic stance toward) nature so with (the traditional stance) to God or gods. In the second poem in the book, the beautifully simple and direct ‘There are as Many Questions as Answers’ she wrote:
What is to be?
It is to bear a name.
What is to die?
It is to be name only.
And what is to be born?
It is to choose the enemy self
To learn impossibility from.
What is it to have hope?
Is it to choose a god weaker than self,
And pray for compliments?
For her there was no detachment. Her poetry overturns our world view. We cannot remain detached and enjoy it 'as poetry', because its implications are so uncomfortable. If it is true, it changes us.
1 For a line by line analysis of this poem (and several other poems from PALW, including ‘Come, Words, Away’, ‘Bishop Modernity’, ‘Earth’ and ‘The Flowering Urn’) see my book on Riding’s poems, The Unthronged Oracle (Cirencester: Mereo, 2016).
2 The intensive and restless process by which Riding reworked her poems can be illustrated by reviewing the various versions of what was ‘In Memory of Friends’ in Twenty Poems Less, became almost unrecognizable apart from the final lines as ‘War Ways’ in 1933 and was then again mostly rewritten as ‘Regret of War Ways’ in Collected Poems.
3 The four prose works I refer to are: Laura Riding, Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (Paris: Hours Press, 1930); Laura Riding, Experts Are Puzzled (London: Cape, 1930); ‘Barbara Rich’ (one of Riding’s pen-names), No Decency Left (London: Cape, 1932); Laura Riding (editor and arranger), Everybody’s Letters (London: Arthur Barker, 1933).
4 Joyce Piell Wexler, Laura Riding’s Pursuit of Truth (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979), 73. I have used a colon (as opposed to the comma Wexler uses) in the title of Poems: A Joking Word as this is how it appeared on the flyleaf of Poet: A Lying Word. On the cover of the book itself (and inside) there is no punctuation, just Poems in italics, followed by A Joking Word in plain type.
5 Interestingly even Robert Nye, a lifetime devotee of Riding’s poems, included only ten of the poems from Poet: A Lying Word in his otherwise generous selection, which had by contrast eighteen of her earliest poems from her First Awakenings (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992) which the author had excluded altogether from her Collected Poems. Laura Riding, A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, edited with an introduction by Robert Nye (Manchester: Carcanet, 1994). He even omits one of the finest short poems in the language, ‘With the Face’.
6 Excerpts From A Recording (1972), Explaining The Poems. Published as Appendix V in The Poems of Laura Riding, the centenary edition of Collected Poems (2001), 496.
7 The two separate parts of what became ‘Disclaimer of the Person’ in Collected Poems were first published as unbound sheets The First Leaf (Majorca: The Seizin Press, 1933) and The Second Leaf (Majorca: The Seizin Press, 1935).
8 ‘The Idea of God’ first appeared in Epilogue I in 1935, but was reprinted in Laura Riding and Robert Graves, Essays from Epilogue 1935-1937 (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001), 5-37. Laura (Riding) Jackson, The Word “Woman” (New York: Persea Books, 1993).
9 Excerpts From A Recording (1972), Explaining The Poems. In the centenary edition of Collected Poems (2001), 496-97. She goes on to discountenance utterly the ‘goddess notioning’ which Graves developed into the widely-hailed book, The White Goddess.
10 Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry ((London: Heinemann, 1927); these quotations are taken from the reprinted edition of Riding and Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (Manchester: Carcanet, 2002), 129, 130.
11 An observation I owe to Mark Jacobs.
12 Contemporaries and Snobs (London: Cape, 1928), 10.
13 From the chapter ‘Variety in Modernist Poetry’. This remark quite probably suggested Ted Hughes’ comments (brilliantly satirized by Wendy Cope in ‘A Policeman’s Lot’): ‘The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system.’
The remarks on gentility remind one of Riding’s own background. Her father was a working man, and a passionate socialist. Although Riding’s political views were very different she retained great respect for him.
14 On the blurb from the dustjacket of the Cassells 1938 Collected Poems, published in full as an appendix to my The Unthronged Oracle (2016).
15 These are some of the definitions of ‘peculiar’ given in O.E.D.
16 Poet: A Lying Word (London: Arthur Barker, 1933), 3. The first published version, in Twenty Poems Less (Paris: Hours Press, 1930), 1, was substantially revised for PALW, the last three lines quoted lines replacing the blander
‘And if you could forego one
We might arrive, pending your pleasure
At some not inapt compromise.’
These final three lines were altered again in Collected Poems to ‘Yet, if you can forego one,| We may between us illustrate| This subsequent identity.’
17 Joyce Wexler’s Laura Riding: A Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1981) provides an invaluable and fascinating selection of reviews in the section ‘Writings About Laura Riding’ (117-154). It is not comprehensive howe