In Extremis – Reviews

A bladed mind
Will Eaves / October 29 1993

“All I know of her”, wrote William Carlos Williams to a curious Time magazine correspondent in 1938, “is that, personally, she’s a prize bitch.” His pride had been pricked. According to a Time magazine book review, Rainer Maria Rilke and Laura Riding, then approaching the end of a “scandalous” fourteen-year affair with Robert Graves, were the two indispensable voices of twentieth-century poetry. Williams came third. The fact that the review of Riding’s Collected Poems was largely a put-up job — commissioned by a close friend and awkwardly written by Riding’s future husband — only emerged later. Ironically, however, the bronze medallist’s barb hit home about the strained relationship between Riding’s work and the poet herself. For the “bladed mind” which produced what is perhaps modernism’s most philosophical poetry also gave rise to a frenetic literary and moral idealism (she would say “spiritual realism”) whose “play with the possibilities of extreme statement” was deeply, divisively personal. Other poets have broken up marriages; not many have stood by while the ousted wife is carried away in a strait-jacket.

In most accounts of her life, therefore, Laura Riding, champion of truth in poetry (“literally, literally, literally, without gloss, without gloss, without gloss”) and scourge of adulterated meaning, emerges as both prize and bitch. There are polite testimonials from friends and acquaintances: Julian Symons characterizes her struggle to affirm the personal truth of her work as “the tendency towards extreme individualism and poetic isolation”; Martin Seymour Smith, in his biography of Robert Graves, Riding’s partner from 1926 to 1940, is less kind, calling her semantic protectiveness a delusion of “infallibility”. Yet the life itself, its ethnic-intellectual origins and education, remains obscure. In part, this is the price one pays for pronouncing history “nothing more than the bad dreams of poets” – hardly an inducement to attempt a balanced biography – but it is also the inevitable result of spending most of one’s life trying to get the life to fit the work; of being one’s own worst enemy. At Riding’s insistence, the early years, during which she produced some of her finest verse, have been ignored. The consequence, sadly, has been that the twenty-year-old Cornell radical and poetic apologist for Voltaire is now chiefly remembered as the “baleful” muse who wrecked Graves’s first marriage to Nancy Nicholson, held court in Majorca from 1929-1936, abandoned poetry in 1938, sent a Pennsylvanian farmer’s wife mad, and dwindled into shrill obscurity on a citrus plantation in Florida.

As Deborah Baker’s informative and sympathetic new biography points out, this is a travesty of poetic justice. Riding’s self-defeating ambition and insecurity were not infantile responses to Graves’s greater success, though they may have had their origins in her own intellectual infancy. In her eighties, she was reportedly delighted to hear that a Soviet anthology of American and English poetry gave her five more lines than Graves, whom the editors denounced as “decadent”. The entry also approved her father’s “tailoring and working-class background”. Here, if anywhere, are the roots of Riding’s irascibility and obsession with setting the record straight. Graves came from a wealthy background; so, too, did most of the Fugitives, the American modernist movement of the early 1920s which awarded Riding her first poetry prize in 1924. Riding, by contrast, was poor, and schooled in the many calibrations of class, language and economic advantage by which her Brooklyn immigrant community organized itself. Her aesthetics were more essential than those of her privileged contemporaries: poetry, as she described it at Brooklyn Girls High, offered the second-generation immigrant a refuge “where the fear of speaking in strange ways could be left behind”.

Her father, Nathan Reichenthal, a Polish-Jewish emigre worn down by his years in Manhattan’s garment sweatshops, was her tutor in political idealism. Born to his second wife, Sadie, but named after his first, Laura Reichenthal was weaned on the peculiar, oxymoronic veneration for self-improvement and the ideals of organized labour that constituted Jewish socialism at the turn of the century. Its voluble adherents, gathering in Lower East side tea shops to pit faith against ideology, developed a strand of Marxism that promised spiritual reward as well as material revolution. Taking this heady dialectic with her to Cornell in 1918, Riding, as she had begun to call herself, wasted no time in establishing herself in the front ranks of a Jewish intellectual clique with dazzling exegeses of Das Kapilal, before surprising everyone by dropping out to marry her history lecturer, Louis Gottschalk, in 1920, and moving to Urbana, Illinois. Higher education, she had decided, would be of no intrinsic value to a confirmed autodidact; and poetic, not political, idealism was her natural philosophical currency – a realization summed up by the long narrative poem, The Vain Life of Voltaire, in which the hero of reason and justice is plagued by an insatiable intellect:

What reconciles the garden
Does not reconcile the mind,
Which demands instruction
The more it is blind.
Sets little store by speeches.
Can understand only what it knows,
Knows only what is secret.

Voltaire made it into the 1938 Collected Poems. The bulk of her early work, written before Riding left for England in 1926 and abandoned inside a folder marked “Ancient History”, did not. Instructions to destroy the folder’s contents were nevertheless ignored, and their availability now in First Awakenings (with a contorted disclaimer from Riding written just before she died), confirms Voltaire’s promise. The “tendency towards poetic isolation” — towards personal truth — is everywhere the dominant impulse.

It is not difficult to see how the popular conception of her as Graves’s cruel White Goddess, demanding constant propitiation, at once satisfies and sensationalizes this antisocial aspect. It is more accurate, however, to turn Eliot’s dictum about the extinction of personality in poetry on its head and say that, given her background and sensitivity to accent, origin and class, Riding craved an intinction, or confirmation of selfhood, inverse.

In this, the odds were against her. Responding to a letter Riding wrote in 1935 recommending James Reeves’s inclusion in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, the editor, W. B. Yeats, shocked Riding by rejecting Reeves on the grounds that he was “too reasonable, too truthful”. Poets, maintained Yeats, “should be good liars”. His devilment was pertinent. He meant to remind her that a poet’s shaping experience should infuse the world, not be confused by it. Riding’s renunciation of poetry (made public in a BBC radio broadcast in 1962) bore witness to such a confusion: the last fifty years of her life, most of which she spent cultivating lemons in Wabasso, Florida with Schuyler Jackson (who wrote that book review for Time), were intermittently dedicated to expounding a doctrine of literalism — in A Dictionary of Related Meanings — intended to fix word meanings for good and all. It was never published, or even finished.

The political equivalent was equally ambitious. Returning to England from Majorca with Graves in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Riding sought to reintegrate her poetic ideals of truthfulness with political activism. A “Personal Letter with a Request for a Reply” was duly dispatched to 400 influential politicians and intellectuals asking what might be done to secure “a peaceful, civilized existence, in a world which has become steadily more and more disordered”. In compiling the responses – many of which were bemused by the letter’s lofty tone – Riding conceived the notion of an intellectual oligarchy, to be called the Council of the Inside People, which would combine her father’s high-minded radicalism with her own militantly reactionary feminism. Beneath the Council, Riding proposed a system of central distribution run by “women of grace with no ulterior motives” — the Order of Love.

At a distance, both projects inspire disbelief. I. A. Richards (“you can’t put words into strait-jackets”) declared the dictionary intellectually bankrupt from the outset; but some publishers (Little, Brown), poets (Norman Cameron, Graves) and friends (Jacob Bronowski) took it quite seriously. Politically, however, Riding would have been wise to heed her own 1925 caution that “a poet outside his poem is messianic”.

Bound by a “Covenant of Literal Morality” (1938) drawn up with Graves, the poet Alan Hodge, his wife Beryl (later Beryl Graves) and others in late 1937, Laura Riding’s Council of the Inside People convened on March 28, 1938. Its aim was to stop the war by deciding on “moral action to be taken by inside people for outside disorders”, and it admonished its adherents to have “no seclusion with self in place or mind, to which we could not admit others without guilty immodesty”. More ingenuous than the totalizing tone suggests (one tier of government was to consist entirely of “men of power who are also men of goodwill”), “literal morality” outstripped the poetic struggle to get words to conform to intention by proposing a logocracy whose verities would teach everyone “How To Speak Purely In A Way To Avoid Fallacies Of Language And Mediocrity Of Thought”. It was a Utopian vision, not a Hobbesian contract, concerned with perfecting power rather than maintaining it – Riding even had a blueprint for a better railway system — but it was also a confusion of idea and fact. Life, as Northrop Frye once said, “imitates literature up to a point, but hardly up to that point”.

In Extremis considers the origins of this failure to keep life and work apart in terms set out by Al Alvarez’s study of poetry and suicide, The Savage God. At the epicentre of this confusion, Baker locates Riding’s suicide attempt — the leap from a Hammersmith flat in 1929 which broke up a menage with Robert Graves and his wife, Nancy Nicholson, that had lasted since Riding’s arrival in England three years before. It was typical, Baker says, of the epoch’s violent self-destructiveness: “When Laura Riding’s imaginative self exhausted its self-generating resources, her own body became the new medium of the nihilistic expression.” Somehow this doesn’t quite convey the drama of Riding guzzling a bottle of household detergent in front of an astonished Graves and Nicholson – and the Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs -before jumping out of a fourth-storey window. More importantly, it suggests “exhaustion” and sagging desperation where there was, and continued to be, death-defying energy. A high proportion of the unpublished First Awakenings joust with Death to prove the young author’s mettle: “Listen for the voices to cry danger! / Then you may go … Fly to the monster / Lean to its fierce heart low”.

Riding wanted to be confused in the world; and like an uncommonly vigorous Lady of Shalott, she turned from her tapestry to take the plunge. Written in Urbana, Illinois, where Riding strained – and failed – to fulfil the duties of a polite young professor’s wife, “The City of Cold Women” rails against the deadly primness of Midwestern life, while the thwarted poet longs for some kind of reviving defenestration:

The roofs of the city are a bleak mist
Brooding over the sharpness beneath them:
Walls stroked to corner by the hands of the cold women.
Fireplaces for irony.
We shall not wonder at rimed mirrors-
Windows give up their secrets.
Not mirrors.

The sublime quality in this passage is not its suicidal drive, but its sensuous violence — “Somewhat frolic, somewhat fierceness” — and the creeping sensation that Riding is daring metaphor on the window-ledge with one hand on the reader’s neck. Like other American poets and writers of the 1920s — Hart Crane, Thornton Wilder – she looks over an edge, or a bridge, and sees frustration and ferment. In common with Eliot, whom she writes off in an early essay for his intellectual “debauchery”, she observes a wasteland in which the present continuous is a vision of hell: “Death dropped me by mistake … / Into the lost isle of the living./ What have we done to Death, / Inventing dying?”. This may be callow poetry, but its confident inversions command our attention. Riding could match her Poe-influenced peers, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, phantasm for phantasm when it suited her, marking in one poem “the swift clairvoyance / Of flesh translated into death / before it dies”. The keynote sounded throughout most of her work, however, is not this kind of suffering suspension but, rather, a brute wager between poetic witness and the moment of injury, or insight.

In “The Defense”, a man sets out to prove he can reach a higher intellectual plane by climbing houses and scaling steeples: “Bet you I can bring me nearer / To that star than [you] could ever / Come to canniness if God were /To make you ten times as canny / As you are.” On one of his ascents, he falls and breaks every bone in his body. This is pure Marlowe; homofuge seeps out of the verse as the spell of higher knowledge breaks man in two. It is also euphoric in pursuit of self-transcendence – the aim of every intellectual myth – and the “possibilities of extreme statement”. Yet Riding does not always hurtle at us from the fourth storey. Many of the most telling verses in this cleanly edited collection are lyric quatrains which fulfil the Poundian injunction “utdoceat, ut moveat, ut delectet; to teach, to move or to delight”:

If at noon it may be found
Like a scarf upon your shoulder
Be at dusk a little bolder
Trail your shadow on the ground.

To be “bumed down to a fact” by breaking the body, or to be “a little bolder”, and parade one’s self-awareness: these are the imperatives of sacrifice and renunciation that govern Riding’s work. The canvas is impossibly large; of the moderns. Riding alone dares to be Brunnhilde, pledged to resolve her own contrariness by knowing and obliterating simultaneously: “Forgive me, giver, if I destroy the gift! / It is so nearly what would please me, / I cannot but perfect it.”

Deborah Baker’s biographical treatment of this urge to overdress poetic faith is often serenely witty. It is, she discovers,’a literal overdressing. After her miracle recovery from the suicide attempt, Riding takes to wearing a shawl with a “representation of her damson-coloured surgical scar on it”, and referring to herself as “Finality”. Later, in a compelling discussion of her reign at Canellun (the house she built and shared with Graves in Majorca) the wars of intellectual attrition waged with Graves, Bronowski, Norman Cameron and the painter John Aldridge are similarly enlivened with a spot-check on her wardrobe. Having given up sex in 1933 (“I like men to be men, and women to be women, but I think bodies have had their day”). Finality starts wearing an 1830s all-in-one — with a bustle — to remove any vestiges of “art school allure”.

These are prize moments. But Baker is no critic. Assessing The Quids, the satire on modernist quips and quiddities which first drew Riding to Graves’s attention in 1924, Baker applauds “Riding’s ability to treat words with more than their dictionary definition in mind”. The point, surely, is that, to Riding’s mind, the provincial Fugitives (Penn Warren, Allen Tate et al) are using the wrong dictionaries – “resolved to predicate, / to dissipate themselves in a little grammar” – in which dissipation has forestalled definition.

Other opportunities to open up the biography’s critical remit are also missed. In a potentially lively discussion of The Life of the Dead (1932), Riding’s bi-lingual collaboration with Aldridge, the extraordinary resemblances between Aldridge’s shamanic illustrations and the collage novels of Max Ernst, particularly La Femme 100 Tetes, are ignored. Bird-headed daemons – close kin to Emst’s familiar Lop-lop – cavort on the cliff-tops; mountainous women (Venus/ Vesuvius) swallow fallen angels; but the commentary remains conservatively biographical, and Baker substitutes speculative comparison for reliable research. All of life in Deya is inscribed in these verbal comedies: Graves, Aldridge and Time magazine’s future Managing Editor, Tom Matthews, turn up as the Three Men-Spirits of the Dead. Here, too, is Graves’s botched courtship of Julie Matthews, Laura’s fondness for playing  cards, and most poignantly, the lilt of the gramophone: “the voice of all those races that time has not admitted / Into the lavish happenings and courses / That make life so full of interest and death so foul.”

“I think you got away just in time”, remarked Edmund Wilson to Matthews, at the end of his exhausting six-month stay in Majorca. The congratulations were premature. Riding repatriated to Pennsylvania in 1939 with Graves, Alan Hodge and Beryl Pritchard (collaborators on the Covenant, or First Protocol) and James Reeves’s son, David. Lodging at first with the Matthews’ in Princeton (while Schuyler Jackson undertook the conversion of a cottage on his farm). Riding’s “special authority” and “celebrated power” soon made themselves felt. Within three months of her installment on the Jackson farm, Riding had renounced her vows of abstinence (“Schuyler and I do”), convinced Julie Matthews she was Christ, and pronounced Katherine Jackson “evil” after Schuyler’s wife was found strangling their nine-year-old daughter. As proof. Baker notes, Riding uncovered a “maleficent” arrangement of tampons in the Jackson bedroom. Meanwhile, Riding presided over daily meetings of the Second Protocol in which the Inside People were interrogated about the depth of their love for her.

Baker finds her narrative feet in the ghoulish unravelling of events on New Hope farm. It is, inescapably, In Cold Blood territory, plotted as a series of gripping stalk-and-chase sequences. There is nothing malicious about this: the facts really are too extraordinary, the charismatic pungency too reminiscent of Salem for the story not to radiate a certain lurid fascination. But the after-chill is not manufactured, and the merit of Baker’s book is that we never cease to read Riding’s excesses as an index of poetry’s greater loss.

The hard truth is that Riding’s final doctrines of literalism and spiritual realism were, and must remain, hopelessly void. Poetry is prophecy, at least partly, and it has an unprovable claim to some kind of truth. She was right in that. But in order to tell us something we do not already know, the language must be fresh – unrecognizable -each time we wish to know something. By standardizing received meaning. Riding denied herself the possibility of perception; by being confused in and with the world, she became a solipsist; by claiming self-sufficiency, she lost that sense of history-without-me which frees a poem for its readers. The following sestet got out just in time:

But this strange present world is not of me.
If I could find somewhere a secret sign,
That one might say: In this an Ancient sings,
I should acknowledge then my legacy
And love to call this modern fabric mine.
Perhaps, once, in my sleep, I dreamed such things?