In Extremis – Reviews

New York Times Book Review
Laura Riding Roughshod
No one understood her but herself, and that may have been her own fault.

Carol Muske / November 28, 1993

William Carlos Williams called her a “prize bitch,” while Virginia Woolf dismissed her as a “damned bad poet.” Louise Bogan thought she should be “slammed in the eye”, Dorothy L. Sayers declared her writing “abracadabra — a hypnotic rumble of stupefying polysyllables.” Dudley Fitts reared far back, pronouncing her with “few equals” when it came to “browbeating an audience into conviction by sheer force of arrogance, among any poets living or dead.” Judging by the caliber of her enemies, we might assume that Laura Riding did something right.

Deborah Baker’s new biography of Riding, the aptly titled “In Extremis,” in no way denies the right Riding did. (Her biography arrives in the midst of Riding’s resurrection: the reissuing of four of her books, setting her in a bright revisionist spotlight as another forgotten female genius pulled from the rubble of modernism.)

Laura Riding grew up, undaunted, in impoverished circumstances: she was an immigrant tailor’s daughter, born in 1901 in New York City. She imbibed much of her father’s impassioned socialism — enough for a life-long argument with the status quo. She won a scholarship to Cornell, began to write poetry,won a poetry prize offered by the Fugitives (the group of Southern gentleman poets that included Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren) and ended up exerting real (if unacknowledged) influence on their traditionalist aesthetic. She sailed in 1925 in the modernist exodus to Europe (at the invitation of Robert Graves, who’d discovered, reading a poem of hers, that they were destined to be together), and in her next 14 expatriate years she wrote an astonishing number of books: poetry, fiction and philosophical essays.

She also collaborated with Graves, most notably on “A Survey of Modernist Poetry,” published in 1927, which some critics believe launched the New Criticism, and on the tiny Seizen Press, which made them publishers of some influence. Her early philosophical musings turned into a feverish epistemological hunt for Truth: among other manifestoes, she issued a universal call to arms for women, exhorting them to reassert their power as a “source,” “more real than God, more real than man.” A self-styled visionary, she became a crusader for language protocols intended to abolish war through exact speech. She fought the sexism of editors and publishers, and of her own male friends and lovers, who were not above usurping her ideas (Riding claimed Graves’s “White Goddess” borrowed heavily from her own thinking). Their time together was volatile, and remains the subject of controversy; nevertheless she and Graves prospered intellectually, drawing many admiring young poets and writers to their home in the tiny village of Deya, on the island of Majorca. In 1991, the last year of her life, Laura Riding, now 90, was awarded the prestigious Bollingen Prize for her “lifelong contribution” to poetry.

The disparity between the snide comments of contemporaries and an ideal literary life is, of course, the biographer’s native realm. For Deborah Baker, however, this stretch of Riding territory is mined ground, fraught with obstacles to understanding what biographers call the real life of their subjects. Riding herself appears the most persistent obstacle — not only because of contradictory and highly disturbing accounts of her character and personal life provided by herself and others, but because she cultivated a perversely protean literary identity that defined everything she did. The events of writers’ biographies often take a back seat to the driving life of their imaginations. In Riding’s case, imagination stood on the gas pedal and floored it.

“First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding,” a cache of some 200 poems left behind when she sailed abroad, reveals the pre-expatriate Laura. “Dimensions,” among other poems, shows that although young she was already fierce in confident self-appraisal:

Measure me by myself
And not by time or love or space
Or beauty. Give me this last grace:
That I may be on my low stone
A gage unto myself alone.
I would not have these old faiths fall
To prove that I was nothing at all.

In other early poems. Riding fiddles impatiently with prosodic form: the forced obvious rhymes and metronomic stresses barely contain this tiger in a cage of Georgian politesse. When she bends the bars, as she does in a poem, “Addresses,” we hear the straight-talk cadences of the modern age and beyond; she prefigures Sexton, Piath, even Berryman:

Father, I have begun to think.
Come and listen at my head.
It is frightful, like being dead
and having to hide
Everything in you that was once outside.

There were several “Lauras,” as Ms. Baker illustrates in her biography — some lived, some died. The precocious Laura, Ms. Baker suggests, dissolved into one of Riding’s “successive identities” in a “roundabout story” of the “perplexing creatures who sprang repeatedly from this woman’s head.” Riding’s mob of aliases reflected not just her marriages but also this spontaneous regeneration. In the course of her life she went from Laura Reichenthal (her maiden name) to Laura Gottschalk to Laura Riding Gottschalk to Laura Riding to Laura (Riding) Jackson. Hart Crane dubbed her “Laura Riding Roughshod.”

Riding had an unfortunate lifelong compulsion to explain herself. She published long explications of her psycholiterary development — progressive revelations that led to an official renunciation of poetry in 1941, when she declared that poetry blocked “truth’s ultimate verbal harmonies.” Perhaps the deeper, sadder truth was that she had sacrificed her talent to her moral crusade. Her poems, filled with abstract posturings, turned to linguistic curios. In “Laura Riding: Selected Poems in Five Sets.” published in Britain in 1970 with a preface by the author, and just reissued, the poems’ arrangement mirrors the achronological thematic approach of Ms.Baker’s biography. The setting is irrelevant — what comes through, as here, from “That Ancient Line,” is the willed diminishment of a poet’s voice.

Indeed, between Aci una Matter-of-Fact
Was such consanguineous sympathy
That the displeasure of the matronymic
In the third generation of pure logic
Did not detract from the authority
Of this and later versions
Of the original progenitive argument.

This hothouse style, impenetrable in places, also began to characterize Riding’s prose, which reads pretty much like a migraine. Not much can excuse this style, but its excesses can be understood. Times were tough for women artists. The gatekeepers of culture, Pound and Eliot et al., weren’t giving passes to their female peers. Like many of her modernist an the whole universe is, ultimately, an indoor place; it is her work to bring it all indoors. When woman becomes an outdoor creature, either physically or intellectually, she is ‘smart’ … or clever or interesting,’ but she ceases to be effective; she is no longer a comprehensive being.”

And so, Riding wrote, “In fighting for full social liberation as if it held the key for them to fullness of life and performance, women are sealing themselves off from that of which they have, by their ‘ woman-nature,’pure, sure sensibility.’ “The Word ‘Woman’: And Other Related Writings” contains the unpublished title essay (written in 1933-35 when she lived with Graves) as well as other essays and stories. Its appendix explodes with a gale-force “personal commentary” on “The White Goddess” in her pass-the-machete style:

It would not be enough to say of The White Goddess’ that it is a … profession of poetic faith enacted with pseudo-naive mind — immerging in glittering expanses of shallow poetic theorizing, into which is poured a foamy grandiose effusion of nothingish spirituallstics affecting learnedness in the meaning of woman in the cosmic totality; and to say that, as such, it is; deserved by the modern intellectual populace that has emptied consciousness of a reality ‘soul’ and invited ‘in,’ for replacement, poetically inflated psychological theory and literary and anthropologically recycled ‘myth.’ … The White Goddess’ is worse than this. It is a personal infliction, an act of revenge.”

Despite all the attempts to rewrite her life, including her own, which emphasized her independence, Riding always relied openly on men and was extremely competitive with other women. When Graves invited her to Europe, she moved in with him and his wife, Nancy Nicholson. This menage a trois (with the Graves children in the background) went on for some time (becoming a menage a quatre with the addition of Geoffrey Phibbs, an Irish poet and Riding’s male muse), till Laura jumped out a window (her exit line: “Goodbye, chaps !”) and broke her spine, nearly killing herself so that one of the Lauras could die and open the way to the future. As soon as Riding could walk again, she and Graves escaped to Majorca, leaving Nancy and the children behind.

“Four Unposted Letters to Catherine,” written to Graves’s 8-year-old daughter, was published around this time (1930). The letters (ironically) were an airily composed primer on how to live, how to avoid hypocrisies and pretensions.

On Majorca, avoiding hypocrisy, Riding came to the conclusion that sex was demeaning to women and stopped sleeping with Graves, but found for him other women, whom she saw as an extension of the side of herself she had decided to withhold. When one of the women got pregnant, she was furious. She arranged an abortion and, according to the young woman, stood at the foot of the bed while the operation was performed.

When Riding returned to America in 1939, she and Graves moved in with the Schuyler Jackson, family in New Hope, Pa. (Jackson was a journalist and early admirer of her work.) Laura promptly broke her celibacy vow with Jackson in his own home, then launched a hair-raising character assassination campaign against his wife. Kit. She accused the woman of “witchcraft,” using Inquisition documents to establish her guilt Riding herself’ cultivated the image of a witch and regularly practiced “mind control” — how else explain her power over an entire family and their close friends, who, Ms. Baker tells us, ended up helping throw Kit Jackson’s personal effects on a bonfire Riding had built after the poor woman had literally been driven to the insane asylum.

On the subject of Riding’s short-lived friendship with Gertrude Stein, Ms. Baker says that “for both Riding and Stein … being women and being contemptuous of women had a special price.” She notes that Stein’s love for Alice Toklas helped contain her contempt for women and “kept the cost from being too great,” but that Riding left herself no such “collateral.” Riding ended up, in an unpublished essay. linking Stein’s “perverse linguistic games” with her homosexuality, effectively denouncing her for her woman-love.

Such unsavory stuff is predictable fare in recent biographies. But In the cases of, say, Frost, Plath, Jean Stafford and, most recently, Philip Larkin, immense talent proves a strong deodorant: the petty human personality ends up second, appropriately, to the monumental work. In Riding’s case, we are on far less secure ground, in the matter of her oeuvre — If she resurfaces as a reputation it may be in areas less specifically literary and more germane to what her final “language” interests were, vaguely Heideggerian and anticipating (in spirit if not substance) contemporary language theory. She was not really, as Auden called her, “our only living philosophical poet”: she renounced her poetry and became a worshiper at another temple. Her new religion was a kind of spiritual linguistics — and in the words of its liturgy, and the liturgy of its words, she was both exonerated and canonized: lone Goddess.