- In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding by Deborah Baker
Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 241 12834 X
Laura Riding, so Deborah Baker tells us, first emerged into the public world of books in 1924. She was 23 years old and living in Louisville with her husband, a history professor whom she met when he was her teacher at Cornell. One of the things that had attracted Lou Gottschalk to Laura Reichenthal, as Riding had then been called, was that she knew her Marx better than the other undergraduate ladies did. Marx she had learned at the knee of her father, a New York socialist and a first-generation Jewish immigrant from Poland.
Like so many clever, ambitious women of her time, Riding had married young partly to escape her family and partly because it seemed like a good way of securing the proverbial five hundred a year and room of one’s own. But she was beginning to find that life as a campus wife only replaced one prison with another. Like the restless demon who gets caught inside a tree, her energy and ambition were desperately waiting for some more lively medium to become available to her.
When, in 1924, Riding heard that she had won the Nashville Poetry Prize, she felt like Charlie on his way to the Chocolate Factory. For the Nashville Poetry Prize represented an entrée into society, an entrée into Modernism, an entrée into Life. The prize was judged by the editorial board of the famous Fugitive magazine, one of the first places in the US to take The Waste Land seriously. The Fugitives themselves were a tight-knit and glamorous clique of young male poets, and included among their number the dashing Allen Tate, with whom Riding was already flirting through the mail. So when news of her great success came through, Riding jumped straight on a train to Nashville, there to meet with her friends-and-collaborators-to-be.
John Crowe Ransom, then a key member of the Fugitive group, tells the story of what happened next.
Undoubtedly we were rather absurd in the way we received Laura at Nashville – prim, formidable and stiff. What she came for was human companionship of the most bare-soul description; she had neither birth, subsistence, place, reputation nor friends, and was a very poor little woman indeed. She got only a rather formal welcome, though she is mistaken in assuming that we burned with suppressed libidinous desires ... We quite missed the point. She on her side did not realise that we had already established our personal relationships on satisfactory and rather final bases, and that we were open to literary relationships but not to personal. I realise there is a sort of meanness in such an admission.
Ransom added that Riding had had a peculiar accent: ‘Perhaps Polish Jew?’ Deborah Baker suggests that it may have been her self-consciousness about her accent that caused Riding, many years later, to talk about poetry as a place ‘where the fear of speaking in strange ways could be left behind’ and ‘as a way of speaking differently from the untidy speaking ways of ordinary talk’.
Within a few weeks of her Nashville meeting, Deborah Baker reports, Riding was in hospital, probably suffering from a breakdown. She emerged a month later, determined to make it as a poet, and equally determined to make the Fugitives love her. Allen Tate had already moved to New York. So Riding left her husband to follow him. She was too naive to understand, or she was too full of youthful confidence to care, that the writers she wanted to hang out with were financially supported by rich families, whereas she herself was not. Friends remember her working incredibly hard, yet getting nowhere much at all.
Towards the end of her sojourn in New York, Riding took revenge on the writers who had wronged her by publishing a satirical poem called ‘The Quids’:
The metaphysical acrobats,
The naked, immaterial quids,
Turned inside on themselves
And came out all dressed,
Each similar quid of the inward same
Each similar quid dressed in a different way –
The quids’ idea of a holiday.
‘The Quids’ was admired by Robert Graves, who wrote a letter to Riding, inviting her to visit him and his wife in London.
Riding would stay with Graves, first in London, then in Majorca, first in a ménage à trois, then as sole proprietor, for 14 years, from 1926 to 1940. London literary society did not take to her: Virginia Woolf called her ‘a shallow, egotistical, cock-crowing creature’ and ‘a damned had poet’. Riding retaliated with a string of knockabout, attention-seeking essays and reviews. Of To the Lighthouse, for example, she wrote that ‘all this delicacy of style ... is the expression of an academic but nevertheless vulgar indelicacy of thought, a sort of Royal Academy nudeness, a squeamish, fine-writing lifting of the curtains of privacy’.
To external eyes, the pattern of Riding’s life was set. She was a ruthless homewrecker; she would go on to disrupt another marriage in 1939, by dint of sending the first wife of her second husband, Schuyler Jackson, mad. She was a flagrant, bloodsucking egotist. Over the years Riding and Graves were together in Majorca, it was Graves who brought in the money, with Goodbye to All That and the Claudius books. Yet Riding always insisted that it should be her work which came first; she even forced a deal on Graves’s publishers whereby the publishers could only have Graves if they were prepared to take Riding’s very unpopular poems as well.
And Riding was manipulative to the point of megalomania, a crazy paranoid who continually confused her private fantasies of world domination with external, objective fact. The most notorious proof of her madness came in 1929, when Riding leaped out of a fourth-floor window in Hammersmith, breaking her back and very nearly killing herself, causing Robert Graves to follow her out of another window. The appalled, relentless tone of a recent review of Deborah Baker’s book, written by the novelist Elspeth Barker, expresses very well how the figure of Laura Riding is, in general, seen. ‘Power-crazed and despotic, Laura raged through the first half of her life on a self-promotional binge of destruction.’
These views belong to a mythology: they are not an appraisal of the interior and exterior forces at work in a life. Mythology can say nothing about how painful it must have been for Laura Riding to have carried so much hope and expectancy with her on the Nashville train, only to be trashed for being ‘a very poor little woman indeed’ and a ‘Polish Jew’ to boot. Mythology cannot wonder why it was that Robert Graves and Schuyler Jackson should have been so easily sucked into Riding’s cruel, hysterical fantasies: were they really that weak? Or was there something in these ghastly situations that Riding was catalysing for them? And there is no space in mythology for any sort of ambivalence. You don’t have to like the sound of Laura Riding to think it impressive that, despite being hated and despised by just about everyone she met, the woman refused ever to cave in.
The Laura Riding who emerges from Deborah Baker’s pages is a woman of great weaknesses and of equally striking strengths. On the weakness side, she was not one of those wonderful individuals who just absorb social difficulties and hurts and slights, building their morally-fibrous characters around them like pearls round irritating lumps of grit. Deborah Baker speaks of Riding’s mind, in the months leading up to her 1929 self-defenestration, as ‘a crowded room of her own’, full of Fugitives and other writers and long-past dramas of family-hurt and friendship-hurt which a less resentful mind might have been able to cast out and leave behind.
Yet the amazing thing is that, despite living a life of extraordinary social pain – that much of this pain was self-inflicted does not stop it from being as painful as pain can be – Riding refused ever to give herself up. She did not do as the Little Mermaid did, stepping out into a world not meant for the likes of her and eventually being forced by the suffering of it to drop back into the sea. She did not do as Shakespeare’s Sister did, and let herself be destroyed by the social pressures of authorship to the point at which she had to kill herself. She did not behave masochistically, learning to cover up or apologise for what she was. She chose to respond sadistically, taking the hatred and rejection she felt she had been offered as a sort of permission to behave as outrageously as she liked.
Discussing the spite of Riding’s critical writings, Deborah Baker suggests that it was ‘perhaps the stridency of her protest’ which enabled ‘a far more fragile poetry to survive’. Perhaps. Between 1926 and 1940, Riding published 11 books of poetry, seven works of prose fiction and nine collections of criticism and assorted provocations: an impressive tally for a writer who received little encouragement from anyone.
Deborah Baker also suggests that it was her wilful, aggressive nature which saved Riding from ever completely breaking down: ‘By turning her rage outward in public display, rather than inward as more decorous women writers would have done, Riding might elude those self-inquisitions and censures which would eventually destroy Virginia Woolf.’ It is certainly true that, unlike Virginia Woolf, Riding lived a long, and latterly tranquil, life. She died in 1991, at the age of 90, on her husband’s Florida grapefruit farm where she had lived for more than fifty years.
In her poetry-writing as in her life, Laura Riding seems to have made unusually great demands on her stock of nervous energy and of will. The image her writing forms in your mind is of brittle, incommensurable parts, heroically held together only God knows how. The voice you hear is falsetto-thin, expressive of great control but also of great repression: the poem, it seems, has been fought for, every inch of the way, against the natural grain of what the poet might want to do or say. Laura Riding is not one of those writers who makes you feel receptive and relaxed. On the contrary, she is a writer who seems to be going out of her way to make you as anxious and sceptical as possible.
Like Gertrude Stein, whom she adored, Riding characteristically explored complex relationships in a very simple language, ordering ideas one by one and bit by paratactic bit. Like Stein also, she was interested in wordplay and baby-talk, with the result that it is often difficult to tell whether she is being very profound or just very affected. This problem is compounded by the motifs Riding adopted as her signatures to a poem. One of these is a certain strange bathos, of both rhythm and meaning, which differs from ordinary bathos in that it has a grim-faced look of deliberation about it. The other is a streak of apparently vulgar obviousness, which again seems unusually calculated, as if inserted as a dare to test how confident the reader is about his or her response.
One short poem from 1930 gives a flavour of the general effect. The poem is called ‘Beyond’, and it is reprinted here in its entirety.
Pain is impossible to describe
Pain is the impossibility of describing
Describing what is impossible to describe
Which must be a thing beyond description
Beyond description not to be known through knowing
Beyond knowing beyond knowing but not mystery
Not mystery but pain not plain but pain
But pain beyond but here beyond.
Although Riding wrote this shortly after jumping out of the famous window and breaking her back, the poem is completely, shockingly, empty of reference. It is empty even of the implied reference of address. Riding’s work is generally like that: if nothing else, her poetry reminds you of how very full other writing is, even at its most attenuated and austere. When Gertrude Stein says that ‘a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,’ the mind at least has a rose to hang onto. But when Laura Riding says, as she does in another of her poems, that Life is Life and Death is Death, there is nothing there to get a grip on at all.
So empty of reference, the words must work by structure and music, by the patterns Riding can make from grammar and logic and assonance and rhythm. And they do work like that, sort of. The relief you feel when the penny-pinching vocabulary of the poem suddenly opens out into ‘mystery’ is enormous and real. But then, your thirst for meaning a little quenched, you are ready for another burst of tightly executed quibbles. And do you get it? No. The poem yawns right out with the ‘not mystery but pain not plain but pain’ line. It is like listening to one of those difficult symphonies by some Russian composer which crash along atonally for most of the time, then suddenly, embarrassingly, break into noises that could come straight from a Hollywood film score.
Then, as if ashamed of its floridity, the poem snaps right back shut on itself again, with something that looks uncannily close to a cop-out ending. Or rather, it is an ending that, instead of allowing you to leave the poem with the sense that something has been resolved, sends you straight back to the beginning, to try again. And again. And again. Every time you try it, the heights and dips of potential resonance in the poem distribute themselves in much the same way. And they never really get anywhere. The poem is profoundly, perpetually, disappointing.
Riding herself once defined her writing as an investigation of ‘the strange caprices of what-may-always-be-possible’. This is exactly what her poems are like. They explore potentials rather than actualities, shadows and skeletons of possible images and connections rather than images and connections achieved in themselves. ‘It is very difficult to let the unimportant remain unimportant; almost impossible for people who write stories, because it would sadden them to feel that their work on the material did not make it more important,’ Riding commented in the preface to Progress of Stories, a collection of prose fiction which set itself the task of writing about ‘the unimportant’ in an uncompromisingly trivial way. ‘Starting at the beginning, you will probably not get much pleasure out of the first stories: do not be ashamed to admit it, I did not mean you to,’ Riding teasingly goes on.
There are, on first glance, two ways of explaining the mystery of the perversity of Laura Riding’s poems and stories. Perhaps Riding knew exactly what she was on about, and just refused to express it all the way. Or maybe there really was nothing clearer in Riding’s mind than the disappearing thoughts which make it onto the page; the writing, as it exists for us, is really all there is or ever was. Either hypothesis can be read in a manner unflattering to the poet. We like our poets at least to tender us an illusion that they are giving us their all, and that the all they have to give is something worth giving in the first place. Hence the view, common among poetry critics, that Riding was either too vain to give enough of herself to make her poetry good, or else a poet who really had very little to say, but who said it in an unnecessarily pretentious way.
But what if, instead of failing as a poet, Riding was actually a different sort of poet from most of them, a poet intent on inscribing the experience of a particular sort of failure into her poems at the level of form? This is what Riding herself suggests in one of her more directed statements, a lovely, grammatically fastidious snatch of verse she used to preface one of her collections:
I wish it were possible to speak more decisively
But truly I have nothing more to suggest
Than a more painstaking romance of perception.
Riding always claimed to be asking the big questions in her poetry, questions about being, questions about truth. Because she was intent on asking them in such an uncompromisingly absolutist way, it is hardly surprising that she often gave the impression of not getting very far with them at all.
In or around 1940, just as she was getting things together with Schuyler Jackson, Laura Riding ‘renounced’ the art of poetry. She would be silent for nearly thirty years, working with her husband on his citrus-growing and on a great, shared, never-yet-seen project called ‘The Dictionary of Rational Meanings’. Then, after Schuyler’s death in 1968, Riding gradually re-emerged in the public arena, under the name of Laura (Riding) Jackson. In 1980 Carcanet republished Riding’s 1938 collected poems, with a preface from Laura (Riding) Jackson explaining why, for her, poetry had had to be renounced.
‘What I have called my renouncing of poetry,’ she wrote, ‘was the outer manifestation of an inner experience of discovery that I could not take what was essentially an argument of hope I felt it mine to make any further within the linguistic allowances of poetry: and there was further to go.’ Poetry, Riding felt, was a Platonically sacred thing, holding a utopian promise within itself, that language need not be divided. Put crudely, Riding the poet had been a true believer in what Derrideans call ‘the metaphysics of presence’. That in itself was no bad thing. Few poets and philosophers, whether they like to admit it or not, ever get anywhere without a metaphysics of presence lurking somewhere on their horizons to bid and spur them on.
Then, at some point around 1940, Riding’s personal metaphysic failed. ‘Poetry,’ her 1980 essay went on, ‘bears in itself the message that it is the destiny of human beings to speak the meaning of being, but’ – it is a big ‘but’ – ‘it nurses it in itself as in a kind of sacred apartness, not to be translated into the language of common meanings in its delivery.’ You do not need to follow Riding into a solipsistic rapture to see what she is getting at here. You need think only about the violence written poetry can do to natural, spoken registers of language, or of the holy-holy way in which the custodians of culture overvalorise and hide away a means of expression that, by Riding’s thinking, should belong equally to all humans.
Once Riding realised that poetry, far from healing the breaks she saw in the world around her, actually made things worse, she just stopped doing it. Just like that. As with so many of the things Laura Riding did with her writing and her life, her decision to stop writing seems wilfully self-defeating, utterly mad. But you have to feel awe for the clarity with which she saw where her principles had led her, and for the reckless courage with which she stepped into the silent abyss.
In or around 1940 or so, history books tell us, many Western writers lost the faith they had previously had in the possibility of linguistic and other sorts of wholeness. It took a small figure looking on at the parade to pipe up and ask why then they were all going on and expressing away like mad. Or, as Laura Riding very nicely put it, when asked by the BBC to explain her renunciation of poetry: ‘How did I make the mistake of assuming that, from the art of poetry, the reality of live, personal truth could be precipitated? ... The time had come for somebody to make the mistake ... Any offence felt can be presumed a thing I would have averted, could I have done so.’
Deborah Baker notes that Riding renounced poetry more or less at the same time as she was forcing Kit Jackson into a straitjacket and winning Schuyler Jackson for herself. We are left to make of this what we will, and it is probably best that we make nothing of it at all. Literature fans are supposed to revere the art of poetry for the way it allows us, writers and readers, to escape from our bodies, our minds, our lives into new imaginative fusions, into ‘the strange caprices of what-may-always-be-possible’ indeed. In the number of books she wrote, in the intensity and variety of her raptures, in her fondness for pseudonyms, Riding did everything possible to escape biographical reduction. Yet posterity’s response to Laura Riding has been even more stridently, unforgivingly reductive than it has been to most.
In her review of Deborah Baker’s book, Elspeth Barker implicitly identifies Riding with the figure of Robert Graves’s White Goddess, the haughty, tempestuous, zipper-vagina-ed feminine principle to which Graves dedicated a book first published in 1948. Riding was appalled by this book. She felt it set out to destroy her humanity, her identity, her claims to her own creativity, and it is easy to see why. Few biographical reductions can ever have been so cruel and powerful as this one.
In different ways, in different versions of her story, at different times of her life, Laura Riding was an ambitious woman, an emotionally demanding woman, a manipulative, an aggressive, a sexually voracious woman. Because she believed so intensely in the powers of her will, Riding seemed to think that she could get away with using these scripts when she needed to, leaving her essential identity intact. But she couldn’t, of course. Riding’s ambitiousness, her voracity, her aggression, are not remembered as attributes of Riding. Rather, Riding herself is remembered as an attribute of them, through the myth of the White Goddess, with her own humanity and identity effectively subsumed.
There is no point in trying to reclaim or rescue the ‘real’ Laura Riding from under the mythological rubble. Not even Deborah Baker, to her credit, tries to do so. What we can do, however, is look at the Laura Riding mythology as a mythology: as a set of stories which can do quite a bit to illuminate the culture in which they were formed. The cold, harsh light which is supposed to be exposing all sorts of unsavoury things about Laura Riding’s person can thus be turned outwards, to expose these very myths of sexual voraciousness, self-preservation, aggression, ambition and intelligence, not in general, but in the peculiarly offensive way that women are seen to embody them.
We are free to take our spite out on Laura Riding because Laura Riding, to put the matter at its most simple, failed. She staked her all on a new form of poetry, a form which, when she found it, seemed to leave her with no option but to give her poetry up. In her worldly dealings she aimed high too, for the hyperspace that is now reserved for such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But she never got there. And in her personal life, Riding staked a lot on her ability to transcend the double standard that causes brattish behaviour in men to be admired, in women to be reviled. She failed in that as well. There is nothing the world hates so much as a clamorous, demanding failure, a failure that refuses to take its failure lying down, Most of us would do much to avoid being so much as touched on the sleeve by a failure of that sort, for fear it might sully us, for fear it might expose something about ourselves that we would rather never know.
‘When the final verdict on 20th-century poetry is given,’ the Times obituarist wrote when Laura (Riding) Jackson died, ‘Laura Riding will have a very high place.’ And although this statement may look like a typically journalistic piece of rhetoric, it is actually accurate and fair. Literary criticism does not yet have a vocabulary in which to conceptualise the particular sorts and patternings of strength and weakness, goodness and badness, unevenness and aporia, to which Laura Riding’s life and work give shape. It probably will one day, if the universities are not closed down, but it does not have it yet. As a first step towards building this vocabulary, Laura Riding’s work is going to have to start being widely read. Thanks to the work of Carcanet and now of Deborah Baker, and despite the protestations of the Lauraphobes, this reading must already be underway.
Deborah Baker’s In Extremis is a peculiar book, unusually dense and speculative for a biography, but hampered in its speculative ambitions by the need to keep itself inside a recognisable biographical shape. Baker offers us not one but many versions of the key events in Laura Riding’s life, most of which fade into a jumble of competing evidence and hypothesis. And though she is a sharp, sophisticated reader of Riding’s poems, Baker does her damnedest to stop her interpretations of the writing from bleeding into her interpretations of the life. If you want to read her book as a life-story, you may find this critical baggage confusing. But as this is the first biography of Riding, and only a tiny handful of critical writings on her have ever been published, you will probably decide, as I did, that this is a necessary confusion. According to Deborah Baker, W.H. Auden thought of Riding as ‘our only philosophical poet’, but with this exception pretty well no one else who mattered ever took up her case.
Baker’s Laura Riding is a strange, complex figure, mediated through many unfamiliar angles, as shattered and overwrought as a Demoiselle d’Avignon, and in conventional respects as unattractive. Laura Riding had a horror of biography, and was, Deborah Baker tells us, extremely hostile to Baker’s own project in the years before her death. You can only hope that Riding might have been a little mollified to find herself rendered Cubistically, and not, as her arch-enemy Virginia Woolf still is, as a Royal Academy nude.
The following books by Laura Riding are published by Carcanet:
The Word ‘Woman’, and Other Related Writings (224 pp., £14.95, 24 March, 1 85754 006 9).
A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding (192 pp., £9.95, 24 March, 1 85754 065 4).
The Poems of Laura Riding, chosen by Laura (Riding) Jackson (400 pp., £9.95, 1986, 0 85635 677 8).
First Awakenings: The Early Poems, edited by Elizabeth Friedmann, Alan Clark and Robert Nye (280 pp., £14.95, 1992, 0 85635 985 8).
Progress of Stories (380 pp., £9.95, 1986, 0 85635 678 6).
Lives of Wives (328 pp., £12.95, 1988, 0 85635 748 0).