The Telling

A Mannered Grace
Laura Riding Jackson Book
The Telling £15.00

The Telling

by Laura (Riding) Jackson with an introduction by Michael Schmidt

First published by the Athlone Press in 1972
Published by Carcanet Press Limited in 2005
ISBN 1 85754 7748

From the Introduction

The Telling is dedicated to Schuyler Jackson, Laura (Riding) Jackson's husband and 'partner in the endeavour to take words, and oneself, further', and also to her parents 'who imparted to me a durable sense of the further'. It had been gathering in her mind for years, and it came to be written during the 1960s when the public silence into which she had entered after renouncing poetry in 1941 was filling with other people's noise; her own existence and her work - as well as her public statements, resumed from 1962 onward - were being subsumed in the growing critical industry surrounding Robert Graves, and the history of their work together was being, as she saw it, misreported and misvalued. Not that The Telling is a refutation of anything or anyone in particular: on the contrary, with rapt concentration it focuses on the theme of truth, as against 'The mortal chatter of appearance'. It has about it the quality of a sacred meditation and the language, preponderately monosyllabic, moves in rhythms that at times resemble those of liturgy and never resemble standard, common-or-garden prose.

It is a work of unusual beauty, in part because of its tremendous optimism about the human intellect and about the power of language. That optimism requires of each individual a discipline almost impossible to achieve, a continuous consciousness of self, of self in relation, and of self in language. Second-nature, nuance, recklessness, spontaneity, all become forms of dereliction. If we wish to move beyond 'diffuse greed', we can do so, but we must be prepared to privilege the 'human-souled being' over the 'self-claiming self'.

The two 'furthers' of the dedication relate to the nature of The Telling as it is published here, replicating the 1972 Athlone Press edition. In the following year, the book was published in the United States by Harper and Row. In the American edition, which the author sent to me in 1982, she has pencilled in a correction on the copyright page. It originally said, `The main essay of The Telling was first published in Chelsea, 1967'. She has corrected 'main essay' to read 'core-part', hyphenating, as she so often does, to make a strong noun. This was not, in her view, a book of separate essays but a single work. It consisted of the original Telling, the preface for Chelsea, and then with each reconsideration a further text, an after-speaking, a private word, the 'core-part' being a part, the whole being a process. Each return goes further into the subject, exploring and defining a different aspect, from language to gender to death itself. It is not surprising to learn that at the funeral ceremony for her husband a passage of The Telling was read aloud.

One critic spoke of The Telling as a palimpsest. This is almost exactly wrong. It suggests classical antecedents and concerns, a congruence with the archaeological Modernism of Pound or H.D. With the work of H.D. we can speak of palimpsests, the uncovering of sense beneath sense, the elisions between names and images, an inventive fascination with surfaces, with fragments which perhaps join up, which suggest (evanescently) a whole that cannot be verified. The procedure of The Telling is not Greek or Roman; if it has Mediterranean analogies, it would find them to the east, in Palestine. There is no marble, pottery or glass in The Telling. The categories are large, universal, not reduced to specific forms and types or embodied in accidentals. This moral culture is at the heart of the `durable sense of the further' that the writer received from her parents, and it may not be fanciful to see it as the force that ultimately differentiated her approach from that of Graves, who was readily, and delightedly, and delightfully, distracted by the golden apples thrown before him as he tried to run a straight, undeviating race.

The first six statements

  1. There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. We know we are explainable, and not explained. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.
  2. For science, the explanation of the first life-forms, or earliest matter-patterns, is a main end of knowledge. But the explanation of these cannot be the explanation of ourselves. My thought is that the explanation of ourselves can be the explanation of such mysteries - that in the missing story of ourselves can be found all other missing stories.
  3. Even those wait for the missing story of ourselves who have been taught to believe one of the customary stories in which we are accounted for, so long treasured as true and sufficient as to be lovable. The believers keep good faith with their story, thinking it enlarges their under­standing because they believe it. But it envelops their understanding in a cloud, and they become habituated to the gloom. They wait for untold truth to emerge from the story of their belief. They wait for light in veiled places.
  4. Everywhere can be seen a waiting for words that phrase the primary sense of human-being, and with a human finality, so that the words themselves are witness to what they tell. The waiting can be seen not only in the eager inclined posture of believers. It can be seen also on the faces of disbelievers, the idolizers of the evident: they are not happy in their impatient assurance of there being no cause but uncaused circumstance, they wear the pinched look of people whose convictions make them a meagre fare. In the eyes of all (in the opaque depths in them of unacknowledged presentness to one another) are mirrored (but scarcely discerned) concourses where our souls ever secretly assemble, in expectation of events of common understanding that continually fail to occur. We wait, all, for a story of us that shall reach to where we are. We listen for our own speaking; and we hear much that seems our speaking, yet makes us strange to ourselves.
  5. To tell one comprehensive story of how it has happened that what is is, one which shall hold true, come what may, now-after - a story that whatever comes shall perfectly continue or confirm: such is the ideal motive of religions. A religion addresses the longing in us to have that said from which we can go on to speak of next and next things rightly, in their immediate time - the telling of what came first and before done forever. Thus, a religion touches hearts more intimately than a philosophy can, for a philosophy does not look back, or forward far, if at all, but stares hard at what 'is'. A philosophy would treat of all things, but succeeds in treating only of the appearance of things in its time : it is not a work of vision of mind, but of mind-sight only. It leaves vacancies behind and ahead, which are taken over on the one hand by history, and by poetry on the other. How our story has been divided up among the truth­telling professions! Religion, philosophy, history, poetry, compete with one another for our ears; and science competes with all together. And for each we have a different set of ears. But, though we hear much, what we are told is as nothing: none of it gives us ourselves, rather each story-kind steals us to make its reality of us.
  6. The weakness of history is that it begins late and ends early. It has neither old nor new to tell, but all is diminished in it to make the brief time of our learning that we are 'human' (without yet learning what it is to be that) seem half of eternity. Poetry leaves us otherwise lacking. The future-facing truth-telling that it promises our ears and imaginations never breaks forth from the tellers: the telling travels round and round the tellers in standstill coils, a bemusement in which tellers and listeners are lost. Teller, listener, story, become in poetry one bemusement, in which present and future seem to commingle, and the desire to tell truth and the need to hear it shrink from the touch of fulfilment in lazy unison. Poetry's numbered wording abbreviates truth to the measure of mortal premonition, which has but a midnight's reach. Poetry is a sleep-maker for that which sits up late in us listening for the footfall of the future on today's doorstep.