Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Laura Riding, _The Poems of Laura Riding_

I READ RIDING's Selected Poems in Five Sets about twenty years ago or so, and must have acquired this about the time it was published, 2001 or 2002, but was motivated to pick it up and read it only recently, mainly because I started reading Jennifer Moxley this past year, and Moxley somehow reminds me of Riding.

Somehow... but how? Well. First, Riding usually writes in free verse, but in so cadenced a way that her poems feel almost like blank verse; there's always some Elizabethan music pulsing in her poems, even though the vocabulary is modern. She does occasionally resort to antique-sounding inverted syntax, as Moxley also does, but without ever sounding wholly antique. Second, Riding and Moxley both address philosophical concerns, but do so with the fire-bright intensity most poets reserve for emotional concerns, almost as if they don't quite see them as separate categories. Third, poetic ambition -- the conviction that poetry is going to win through to the truth.

Having read the complete Riding now, I'm left wondering why she so rarely is a part of the conversation. I notice she isn't in either the British or the American Norton anthologies... she is in the Gilbert & Gubar anthology of literature by women, but with fewer poems than either Millay or Amy Lowell. I can see why Millay should get a healthy representation -- she was certainly a key figure in her lifetime, although I doubt she's much read by contemporary poets. Amy Lowell, though... what's with that?

A quick look at WorldCat shows that there are two biographies of Riding, not a bad showing, but apparently only two or three books on her work. She just doesn't seem to be on the map, somehow.

But why not? Her poetry is astounding. Often difficult, but worth the effort. Even if the meaning of the poem as a whole is obscure, there are more than enough great lines ("The stuttering slow grammaring of self") to keep one going. Or how about this?

But when the wind springs like a toothless hound
And we are not even savaged,
Only as if upbraided for we know not what
And cannot answer --
What is there to do, if not understand?
And this we cannot,
Though when the wind is loose
Our minds go gasping wind-infected
To our mother hearts,
Seeking in whys of blood
The logic of this massacre of thought.

Hope I'm not being too literal here, but I take wind to be whatever it is that visits when she is writing poetry -- via the link wind/breath/spiritus/inspiration -- and she is wisely ambivalent about it. What does it want with us? Is it friend or foe? That toothless hound puts me in mind of one of my favorite Yeats lines, "An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve."

I have the impression from somewhere that Riding, while alive (she died in 1991) tended to be severe with anyone who ventured to publish anything about her work. Might this have tended to stunt any developing critical conversation about her, right when it had its best opportunity to start developing?

I wonder too if her case isn't a bit like Ayn Rand's, in that her advocates are so convinced of her superiority, so sure that no other writer matters, that their advocacy makes its object seem the idol of a cult, hence probably not worth the trouble of reading. The introduction to this edition, by Mark Jacobs, is mostly sober, but avoids any attempt at situating Riding within any context at all, either the historical one of the 20s and 30s or the literary one of the poets who were her contemporaries. She's it, basically, an absolute who is her own context:

"The poems of Laura Riding set the implicit challenge: 'Are you up to it?' She chose poetry as the standard of truth, and everything in her life was judged by that standard: does this or that live up to the standard of poetry, or truth? And this becomes a question for each reader of her work: Do I live up to the standard of truth, or poetry?" (p. xxv)

So -- you're either on Laura's team, on the side of truth and poetry, or you're with the preterite, on the side, I guess, of falsehood and prose. We can't really start a critical conversation from there, can we? As with Rand's disciples, you're either down with our girl, and ready to admit that she's the one writer who matters, or you just don't get it and have no business talking about the work.

Well, at least she's still in print -- seventy years after she stopped writing poetry, that counts as quite an achievement.

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