'When the full history of twentieth century English literature comes to be written, I believe that the poems of Laura Riding - and the story that goes with them - will be seen to be as important as anything in it.' So, emphatically, said Robert Nye in The Times in a review of her Collected Poems. And further: 'What needs to be said about the poems of Laura Riding is that they explore, examine, and exploit the possibilities of the English language with an energy and a degree of urgency and seriousness which few other poets besides Shakespeare have even attempted.'
Laura (Riding) Jackson (1901-1991) was the great twentieth century poet of intellect. For the first twenty years of her adult life, between 1919 and 1938, she dedicated her life to poetry, publishing ten volumes in all, which culminated in her Collected Poems (1938), a book which must be read, as she said at the time, with the poems in relation to each other 'to appreciate the large coherence of thought behind them.'
Poetry had primacy in those years, but criticism—of the arts and of life in general—also constituted an essential part of her author activity. Her influence on the development of 'The New Criticism', still employed today in English departments, was crucial. It arose from A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1926) by her and Graves, although efforts have been made to airbrush her authorship and her predominant principles of linguistic scrupulousness out of literary history, by William Empson, a major antagonist, amongst others. Her impact on twentieth century literature is pervasive, leaving unmistakeable traces, for instance, in the introduction and in the selection of contributors for Michael Roberts’ Faber Anthology of Modern Verse, arguably the most influential poetry anthology in English of the twentieth century. The weighty and wide-ranging periodical Epilogue she edited for four issues between 1935 and 1937, described by her as a 'Critical Vulgate', crowned her critical efforts during this period of her life.
Readers should not be left in doubt of the effect her poetic practice had on other poets both of the time and subsequently, most notably W. H. Auden, an early imbiber of her work, and her associate of many years, Robert Graves, with whom she settled in Mallorca between 1929 and 1936, whose output relied on hers long after they parted company in 1940. Others who have taken inspiration from her work include the diverse figures of Hart Crane, Norman Cameron, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath and Paul Auster.
Laura Riding’s famous renunciation of poetry, which came some years after the publication of Collected Poems, has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented. In fact, the same impulse that took her into poetry in the first place eventually took her out of poetry, and into her post-poetic work on language. Her first substantial statement on her position was not made until 1970, in her preface to her Selected Poems: In Five Sets where she said that ‘for the practice of the style of truth to become a thing of the present, poetry must become a thing of the past.’
She adopted the name Laura (Riding) Jackson some years after her marriage to Schuyler B. Jackson in 1941, the new name ‘containing’, as she said, ‘the poetic identity.’ The couple settled in Florida where they set up a successful citrus fruit growing business. She began publishing prolifically again only after 1967, when her post-poetic evangel, The Telling, was first published in Chelsea magazine, edited by Sonia Raiziss. Chelsea also published new essays by Laura (Riding) Jackson and devoted whole issues to her work, including selections from her early work, critical essays and bibliography. Books and essays on her life, on woman, on poetry and language, and on thought, ensued. Some of these, including Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words (1997), on which she and her husband had worked for decades, were only published after her death in 1991, shortly after she was awarded the Bollingen Prize for poetry.
Although she was such a rigorous writer her work has proved indigestible to the academic and critical world. it cuts through conventional literary categories with great freedom, as exemplified in her post-poetic evangel, The Telling (published in expanded book form in 1972), and it owes to a very small number of influences or predecessors. Academics have tended to latch on to her complexities, as though she were producing literary puzzles, and indeed she never dodges difficulty, but we argue, with her, that she ‘splits incontrovertibles’ of the conventional kind, literary and other, and aims to achieve simplicity and truth by an unencumbered immediacy of mind.
The Purpose of the Website is to
- Publicise and promote the work of Laura (Riding) Jackson
- Give access to work by her not readily available elsewhere
- Provide a bibliography of the author’s main works
- Make available significant essays and books on her work and life
- Respond to and correct misrepresentations of her life and work