The Witch of Truth (Laura Riding)

The Witch of Truth

Laura (Riding) Jackson and Schuyler B. Jackson, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words. Edited by William Harmon. Introduction by Charles Bernstein.
A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding. Edited with an introduction by Robert Nye. Persea Books.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Parnassus, 23. No. 1 (1998): 334-53.

Rejoice, the witch of truth has perished
Of her own will–
Falling to earth humanly
And rising in petty pain.

It was the last grandeur,
When the witch crashed
And had a mortal laming. . . . (SP, 102)

The occasion of “Rejoice, Liars,” from which these lines are taken, was Laura Riding’s fabled suicide leap (27 April 1929) from the fourth-story bedroom window of the Hammersmith flat she shared with her long-time lover Robert Graves. He followed her lead by jumping from another window, one story below. Riding, as her biographer Deborah Baker tells
it, [1] was in despair at having been rejected by a more recent lover, a neurotic Irish journalist-aesthete named Geoffrey Phibbs. Before taking the near-fatal leap, she had swallowed a dose of poison. But both Riding and Graves were to survive without permanent injury. As she was to put it at the end of “Rejoice, Liars,” viewed retrospectively, the moment could be considered one of necessary transformation:

Away, flattery, she has lost pride.
Away, book-love, she has a body. . . .
And the witch, for her own honour,
Takes on substance, shedding phantomness.

“Phantomness”: a clumsy coinage that tells us little about what has been “shed” in the poet’s impulsive act. Robert Nye, the editor of the new Persea Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, talks a great deal about his subject’s “passion for exactness” and “verbal lucidity” (SP 4), but the nouns in “Rejoice, Liars”– “truth,” “will,” “earth,” “pain,” “grandeur” (used twice), “speculation,” and “substance”– are no more lucid than they are precise. Here, as in so many of her poems, Riding’s treatment of “truth” is abstract, generalized, detached–and utterly without irony or humor.

Perhaps it is this earnestness, the conviction that “a legend pines till it comes true,” that has made Riding a quintessential survivor, not only in the actual world , in which Laura Reichenthal transformed herself into Laura Riding and then Laura (Riding) Jackson, [2] but in the world of poetry and poetics as well. As I write this, a Riding revival seems to be well underway. There is now a Laura Riding Website, according to which thirteen of her books (poems, short stories, essays, letters) have been reprinted or newly published since 1980. In that year, Carcanet Press brought out a new edition of the 1938 Poems of Laura Riding,[3] composed shortly before her public renunciation of poetry in favor of the search for what she called truth –a search carried on in a variety of prose writings, including The Telling (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) and culminating in Rational Meaning, the monster of a poetic treatise on which she worked (together with Schuyler Jackson until his death in 1968, and then by herself) for the last forty years of her long life. When Riding died in 1991 at the age of ninety, the manuscript of Rational Meaning was still unpublished.

Now, thanks to the editorial labors of William Harmon, we have an excellent edition of what Charles Bernstein calls, in his introduction, “one of the most aesthetically and philosophically singuar projects of twentieth-century American poetry . . . . [a] long summa contra poetica” (RM ix). Contra, because the Riding who renounced poetry in the early forties, had adopted the position that “poetry” is incapable of transmitting “truth,” that only rational language can do so. Bernstein, whose own poetics are based on the Wittgensteinian premise that “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” that indeed language cannot transmit any sort of “message” prior and external to it, argues ingeniously that in its very recognition of poetry’s inability to speak “rationally,” Riding’s is “a pursuit of poetry’s love for language by other means.” “In its testing of our senses of meaning, in its insistence on ‘language as the ground of human intelligence,’ he suggests, “Rational Meaning takes its place alongside such “stylistically dissimilar works” as Louis Zukofksy’s Bottom: On Shakespeare, Walter Benjamin’s “Doctrine of the Similar,” Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kulchur and Jefferson and/ or Mussolini, William Carlos Williams’s The Embodiment of Knowledge, Gertrude Stein’s How to Write, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (RM x).

These are large claims for a dryly written, 600-page treatise, whose chapters boast titles like “Language and Rationality” and “The Principles of Definition.” Rational Meaning, it must be said at the outset, has none of Zukofsky’s gift for citation, none of Wittgenstein’s aphoristic brilliance, none of the profound verbal play of Stein’s How to Write. Bernstein admits that “Rational Meaning is in many ways a frustrating work” (RM xviii), not only in its length but also in the basic fallacy of its central argument, of which more in a moment. But, he asserts, “the important thing is not to be persuaded by [the Jacksons’] arguments, but to respond to them.” For “The Jacksons stake out a powerful, often eloquent, often deliciously barbed, often achingly arched argument against the relativism of the modern age–one that goes much further in its critique than such anti-modern modernists as T. S. Eliot. . . I suspect it is an argument that, ultimately, will take a place of honor in the history of human thought,” especially –and here, I suspect, is the mainspring of Bernstein’s interest–since “Rational Meaning is one of the few philosophical treatises on the nature of language and meaning to be authored, or co-authored, by a woman” (RM xviii).

The modernist woman poet as language theorist: it is an improbable scenario, rather like that of the woman preacher Dr. Johnson famously compared to a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.’ [4] In Riding’s generation, only Gertrude Stein could vie for the role of woman theoretician–a role that thus gave Riding a certain cachet. In his 1974 anthology Revolution of the Word, Jerome Rothenberg singled out Riding for her concentration on what she called “the organic veracities of word-meaning,” and on what might be achieved “in ‘trueness of word,’ beyond the qualified truth-potential of poetry, or any other literarily verbal style.” [5] As woman prophet of the “truth maximum,” Riding gets more space in Rothenberg’s anthology than either Pound or Williams. But–irony of ironies–when Riding learned of the context in which Rothenberg had placed her work, she insisted that he print, along with her poems, a lengthy disclaimer. Revolution of the Word, after all, had been the title of Eugene Jolas’s twelve-point manifesto for transition, a journal in which Riding briefly published before she and Jolas (like Riding and Stein) came to blows. Thus her disclaimer (oddly written in the third person) reads: “As to ‘Revolution of the Word’: she would be dissociated both from ‘revolution’ in this phrase, which she views as transmogrified from a political term, itself a derivative from the general word, into a sentimental carry-all of implications of literary or poetic radicalism” (RW 237). She then dismisses the term “avant-garde” “as being, with its context of European literary politicism, not generally applicable to American poetry of the period in question, and otherwise only very narrowly applicable, if at all, and if so to certain elements of it at its earlier and later worst” (RW 238)

Yet despite this ungracious (and ungrateful!) critique of Rothenberg’s efforts on her behalf, Riding has won over some strong (almost always male) critics, who evidently take her barbed responses as a challenge. In his recent Black Riders (1993), for example, Jerome McGann cites these lines from “The Life of the Dead”(the last poems in the 1938 Collected):

Romanzel, doubtful if such abstruse goddess be
Terrible to know, since only silence-might,
Thinking amid the grim confusions
Struggling ribbon-wise where seems her head
To find a poetry of living death. . . .

and insists that “grotesque and comical” as its style may seem, the poem brings the reader “face to face with the word-a-such–with language as the entirety of the scene where truth as an exchange is represented.” Riding’s poetry, McGann argues, is important to later American writing for three reasons: first, its emphasis (especially of her prose) on the “rhetorical features of language”; second, its support for the “constructivist line” of Pound, Williams, Stein, Oppen, and Zukofsky; and third for its “swerve from romantic and ‘I-centered’ poetry, along with all the ideological assumptions that came with that tradition.” [6]

These are principles with which Charles Bernstein evidently agrees; his critical essays are peppered with citations from Riding’s poems, and in the introduction to Rational Meaning, he declares that her poetry and fiction from the period 1926-1939 are “among the greatest achievements of any American modernist” (RM x). This claim (not substantiated in any way here) is made on the basis of Riding’s enormous ambition: her desire (almost unique among women poets of her time) to wrestle with the problems of language. How many women poets, after all, have taken on the likes of I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden (The Meaning of Meaning), the whole field of structural linguistics, the transformational grammar of Noam Chomsky, and even Saussure’s classic Cours de linguistique générale?

What, then, is Riding’s own language theory? In her 1980 introduction to the new edition of Poems1938, Riding recalls that, in the years of writing verse, she trusted in “the actuality of poetry as a tradition of linguistic composition in forms intended for oral or written delivery, of a level of expression above all common levels of expression, and also above the heights of linguistic distinction attainable in learned discourse, philosophic disquisition, the exposition of religious feelings and ideas, the narration of real events or imagined life-experiences for meeting varieties of mentally dignified human interest” (P 1). The domain of poetry, according to Riding, is that of the “immediate, absolute, life-purifying quality of spirituality; indeed “Poetry may be described as an institution devoted to the pursuit of spiritual realism, in relation to religion as an institution devoted to the pursuit of spiritual idealism” (RM 2). “My sincerity as a poet,” she adds, “was a sincerity of spiritual literalness of faith in the truth-potentiality of words embodied in the spiritual creed of poetry” (P 3). Accordingly, in what is an intensely Arnoldian locution (Riding cites Arnold frequently), poetry is defined as “the secular twin of religion.”

Not surprisingly, such extraordinary demands on poetry proved impossible to sustain. “My kind of seriousness,” Riding declares, “in my looking to poetry for the rescue of human life from the indignities it was capable of visiting upon itself, led me to an eventual turning away from it as failing my kind of seriousness” (P 9). The difficulty here and throughout Riding’s retrospective Introduction, is that it is by no means clear what phrases like “spiritual realism” or “spiritual literalness” might mean in actual practice. How does the reader identify a poem of “dignified human interest”? Of “life-purifying” spirtuality? And what is the dividing line between the poetic-spiritual and the “common”?

We do know, from many of her statements in various places, what sort of poetry Riding did not admire. “Imagism,” for example, is described in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), the book she wrote with Robert Graves, as “a stunt of commercial advertisers of poetry to whom poetic results meant a popular demand for their work”; Imagist poetry is like an “artistic tea-room where the customer finds himself besieged by orange curtains, Japanese prints, painted furniture, art-china . . . and conversational waitresses in smocks who give the personal touch with a cultured accent.” [7] The “literary internationalism” of The Waste Land is brushed off as a form of “literary slumming,” an “abnormal cultivation of the classics” (Survey 124). In Rational Meaning, the Jacksons refer to Eliot as “a littérateur who surely regarded himself as on the side of propriety and elegance in matters of language.” This “littérateur” is chided for saying, in one of his essays, that words have the tendency to “become indefinite emotions.” “We do not think it possible,” write the Jacksons, “that in any other literary era a literary personage of the best credentials would have offered the public anything as corrupt in linguistic principle, and as verbally crude in itself, as a statement to the effect that words tended to become (indefinite) emotions” (RM 127).

Even Gertrude Stein, a long-time collaborator and friend, whose work inspired the repetitions and permutations of such Riding poems as “Beyond” (SP 103) and “Elegy in a Spider’s Web” which begins

What to say when the spider
Say when the spider what
When the spider the spider what
The spider does what
Does does dies does it not
Not live and then not. . . . (P 91)

is fated to be caricatured as a poet of “Protean vagueness,” pursuing “with obsessive pertinacity meandering lines of small-talk, and exercising her homely intuition and commonsense shrewdness in aphoristic opinion-pronouncements.” Applause for “a rose is a rose is a rose,” Riding claimed in her late years, is “applause of the worm.” Indeed, Stein’s essays and lectures testify to her “difficulties of being, thinking, speaking” in favor of the “ease of tireless deity-being” (see Baker 192).

These cranky judgements might be taken with the same grain of salt with which we take, say, Williams’s well-known dismissal of Eliot, or Stein’s of Proust and Joyce–that is, as prompted by an understandable anxiety about one’s own place in the canon–were it not that the attack on the “indefinite” emotions or “aphoristic opinion-pronoucements” of her peers were made by a poet whose own verse all too typically looks like this:

“As Well As Any Other”

As well as any other, Erato,
I can dwell separately on what we know
In common secrecy,
And celebrate the old, adoréd rose,
Retell–oh why–how similarly grows
The last leaf of the tree.

But for familiar sense what need can be
Of my most singular device or me,
If homage may be done
(Unless it is agreed we shall not break
The patient silence for mere singing’s sake)
As well by anyone?

Mistrust me not, then, if I have begun
Unwontedly and if I seem to shun
Unstrange and much-told ground:
For in peculiar earth alone can I
Construe the word and let the meaning lie
That rarely may be found. (SP 61)

Robert Nye, who cites this entire poem in his introduction to the Persea Selection, calls it “prosodically perfect, yet at the same time new and memorable in rhythm, the diction precise, the verbal shape unforced but urgent, the thought and feeling at one and as one truthful” (SP 3). Erato, the muse of lyric love poetry, would have been pleased, Nye maintains; indeed, “any poet of the past six centuries would have been justly proud to have written the lines, but perhaps only a supremely modern poet with a knowledge of the shortcomings of tradition and the burden of past perfections could have tried” (SP 3-4).

This overheated praise recalls the response Riding seems to have produced in her lovers, from Louis Gottschalk to Robert Graves to Geoffrey Phibbs and Schuyler Jackson. But those of us not so smitten may well wonder what the fuss is all about. “As Well as Any Other” has three six-line stanzas, rhyming a5a5b3c5c5b3: a perfectly conventional ballad stanza, although Riding’s ten-syllable line is awkwardly constrained by the meter. The first line, for example, with its strong caesura after “other” and heavy stress on the second syllable of “Erato,” has only four primary stresses, sounding like fairly choppy prose. The second line forces us to give emphasis to the first and last syllable of “separately”; the same thing happens in the case of “similarly” in line 5. It’s not clear to me what is “prosodically perfect” about these lines which strike me as almost amateurish in their inability to fuse the aural and the semantic in interesting ways. Nor are Riding’s rhymes –“secrecy” / “tree”, “rose” / “grows”, “be” / “me”, and “break”/ “sake”–in any way remarkable: compare Yeats’s startling use of the rhyme “trees” / “seas”/ “dies” in the first ottava rima stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium,” published the same year.

What about the poem’s “truth-telling”? Riding’s “I”, addressing the lover (Robert Graves) who functions as her muse, abjures such conventional topoi as “the old, adoréd rose” (perhaps a dig at Yeats’s Rose poems?) or the counting of the leaves on the mystic tree of life. No use “retelling” these familiar stories or breaking the silence “for mere singing’s sake,” when “anyone” can do it just as well. No, this poet must “shun / Unstrange and much-told ground,” so as to bring to life from her own “peculiar earth” the profound and secret truth which she alone can “Construe”– a meaning “That rarely may be found.”

What that difficult and elusive meaning may be is anybody’s guess. In its original publication as the first poem in The Close Chapelet (Hogarth Press, 1926), the third stanza of “As Well as Any Other” read like this:

Reject me not, then, if I have begun
Unwontedly and if I seem to shun
The close and well-tilled ground.
For in untraveled soil alone can I
Unearth the gem or let the mystery lie
That never must be found. (Baker 132)

What I find astonishing about the revision is how little difference it makes. “Mistrust me not” is a little more confident than “Reject me not,” but the tenor of the lines is the same. The adjectival force of “close and well-tilled” is about on a par with “Unstrange and much-told”: in either case, the clumsy compound adjectives and archaicizing diction coyly distance the reader from the poet’s situation as does the vagueness of –take your pick!–”untraveled soil” or “peculiar earth.” The only real difference comes in the last two lines. “Everything in the poem rises toward the word construe,” says the idolatrous Nye, “. . . a very sharp word to find at the heart of a song. It pricks the mind into remembrance that meaning is all, and that for this poet nothing but heart-felt final meaning finally matters.” I suppose “Construe the word” is more forceful than “Unearth the gem,” and that elusive “mystery” of the first version, is now less pessimistically conceived as a “meaning” that can be “rarely” (as opposed to the earlier “never”) found.

In both versions, Riding’s concluding stanza seems to say little more than, “Trust me. If I am true to my own vision of what poetic truth is, I shall prevail.” But who is this arrogant, self-righteous speaker? And in what “peculiar earth” will her rare gift thrive? Riding never quite answered these questions. In a much later poem called “The World and I,” we still find her grappling with her inability to convey meaning:

This is not exactly what I mean
Any more than the sun is the sun.
But how to mean more closely
If the sun shines but approximately?
What a world of awkwardness!
What hostile implements of sense!
Perhaps this is as close a meaning
As perhaps becomes such knowing.
Else I think the world and I
Must live together as strangers and die–
A sour love, each doubtful whether
Was ever a thing to love the other.
No, better for both to be nearly sure
Each of each–exactly where
Exactly I and exactly the world
Fail to meet by a moment, and a word. (SP 116)

The word and the world: what is remarkable about Riding’s conception of the relationship of these two terms is that she somehow takes her own individual “word” to be a match for the “world”: accordingly, when that word’s “meaning” fails her, there is nothing left: “Else I think the world and I / Must live together as strangers and die.” The problem is compounded by the imprecision of the noun “world.” Does it refer to the social or cultural world? The natural world? The universe? We only know that Riding’s is a world of “awkwardness,” that her sun “shines” only “approximately.” No wonder, then, that the poet is brought to the impasse that sets the stage for the writing of Rational Meaning. When the words refuse to do the poet’s work, it is time, Riding seems to have concluded, to renounce poetry altogether.

One meaning, one word : this is the basic rule put forward in Rational Meaning (RM 257). The treatise originated in a project Riding initiated in the 1930s, first called Dictionary of Exact Meanings and later Dictionary of Related Meanings, which was to include “24,000 crucial words of the English language to be defined in such a way as to erase any ambiguity that might have accrued to them over years of improper usage” (RM xii). Perhaps Riding’s “improper usage” phobia had to do with her own inability to ground words–to evoke, say, the look and texture of that “peculiar earth” which is the poet’s habitat. Although, as Bernstein tells us, Oxford University Press turned down Riding’s proposal as “too individual and personal” and as an attempt to put words “into straightjackets” (RM xii), she continued–first alone, later with Schuyler Jackson, then again alone– to work on it, reconceiving her dictionary as a larger treatise. The broader aim, as Schuyler Jackson makes clear in the 1967 Epigraph, was to reform the world by reforming the word:

Suppose that words do have meanings, meanings of their own.
(Which is the reality.) What would the consequences be, if words
were words only in having meanings peculiarly, inseparably, necessarily theirs?. . . .
If one used words as possessed of their meanings so thoroughly that they had no existence except as meaning what they meant, one would have to–in the use of them–mean what they meant, have in mind to express what they expressed. (RM 5).

This somewhat pseudo-Steinian double talk is, of course, wholly at odds with twentieth-century linguistic theories, whether Saussurian, Chomskian, neo-Augustinian, or Wittgensteinian. When Riding declares in her “First Preface” (1973) that “Knowledge of the meaning of words is, basically, adequate knowledge of language: know the words (know what they mean), and all the grammatical and syntactical processes will be found deducible from the knowledge” (RM 13), she is going directly against Wittgenstein’s now widely accepted critique of Augustinian language theory. Let me recapitulate that critique for a moment.

At the opening of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein cites a famous passage from Augustine’s Confessions (I, 8):

“When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved toward something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeateldy used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.” [8]

Wittgenstein’s argument is that this traditional correspondence between res and verba, thing and word, is not so much wrong as it is insufficient: “If you describe the learning of language in this way you are, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like “table,” “chair,” “bread,” and of people’s names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions and properties; and of the remaining kinds of word as something that will take care of itself” (§1). For even if the word “table” in the sentence, “Over there is the table” does point to that wooden object with a horizontal surface and four legs in the center of the room, what does “Over” mean? “There”? “Is”? “The”? Furthermore, as Wittgenstein now proceeds to demonstrate, even as ordinary a word as “table,” or as ordinary a phrase as “five red apples” does not have a fixed meaning: It all depends on how the words in question are actually used in the sentences in which they occur. “When we say: ‘Every word in language signifies something’ we have so far said nothing whatever; unless we have explained exactly what distinction we wish to make” (§13).

This is not the place to outline Wittgenstein’s complex analysis of the “language-games” that constitute human communication. But, so far as poetry is concerned, it should be clear that Wittgenstein’s grappling with the slipperiness of language even in such seemingly straightforward sentences as “I have a pain” or “The rose is red,” has been enormously suggestive to poets. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s aphoristic propositions, as in “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him” or “When I raise my arm I do not usually try to raise it” are themselves strangely “poetic.” [9]

In this context, Riding’s “one meaning, one word” doctrine, with its refusal, not only of connotation, but of multiple denotation, implicitly denies the very existence of poetry as what Pound called “language charged with meaning.” If poetry had failed her, Riding suggests, it is only logical that the Poets be driven out of the Republic.. But hers is not an easy task. For one thing, the theorem (see above) “know the words (know what they mean), and all the grammatical and syntactical processes will be found deducible from the knowledge” (RM 13) contradicts everything we know about the way children actually acquire language. My three-year old grandaughter Lexie, to take a simple example, wanted me to play a particular game with her–a game I didn’t want to play just then. “OK.,” she volunteered, “let’s make a compromise.” “What is a compromise?” I asked Lexie. She couldn’t remotely define the word but she knew precisely how and when to use it. Are her syntactical processes deducible from the knowledge of the dictionary meaning of “compromise”? On the contrary: the syntax of the proposition is prior. Lexie might, for instance, have said, “Let’s make a deal.”

Not until Chapter 10 of Rational Meaning, do we meet any actual examples of the “one meaning, one word” theory. For example:
. . .”air” in “The air is sweet with blossom-fragrance” and “air” in “She spoke with an air of assurance” are not the same word by two different meanings, but two quite different words; and people need to know, think of, them as such in order to use them sensibly. Dictionary-treatment of these and other “air” words as one word meaning now this, now that, blurs perception of them, denies them full word-individuality. (RM 179)

But why is the word “air” used in both of these very unlike instances? Here is the OED’s first definition of “Air,” more specifically “Atmospheric air”:

1. The transparent, invisible, inodorous and tasteless gaseous substance which envelopes the earth and is breathed by all land animals; one of the four ‘elements’ of the ancients, but now known to be a mechanical mixture of oxygen and nitrogen with the constant presence of a small quantity of carbonic acid gas, and traces of many other substances as contaminations.

The first instance of this meaning occurs c 1300; “air” thus defined easily shades into meanings #2, “Any aeriform body ‘permanent’ as a gas; ‘transient’ as a vapour.’ Obs., #3, “The wholy body of air surrounding, or in popular language above the earth; the atmosphere; hence, a. the (apparently) free space above our heads in which birds fly and clouds float” (1300), and #4, “A special state or condition of the atmosphere as affected by temperature, moisture or other inivisible agencies or as modified by time or place as the night air, one’s native air; approaching the sense of weather or climate (1479).

How then do we move to #II [Common in OFr.], “Impetuositiy, violence, force, anger’ Obs.? and #III, “Outward appearance, apparent character, manner, look, style. Esp. in phrases like ‘an air of absurdity’” (1596)? This third category is the one to which the Jacksons refer in their example, “She spoke with an air of assurance,” and they insist that this “air” is entirely different from “air” in “The air is sweet with blossom-fragrance.” Here, as the OED confirms, the Jacksibs may be following Littré, who “makes them two words, identifying air, manner, with OFr. aire ‘area, open place, AERIE.” But, the OED continues:

Diez, after Burguy, inclines to identify the two senses, through the idea of ‘air, breath, spirit, character, manner, comparing the range of L. spiritus, originally ‘breath, air’. . . . It is . . . probable that there was no confusion with aire= aerie, and that the idea of manner– external manner, appearance, mien’ rather than ‘innate character’–is a simple extension of the idea of the ‘enveloping or affecting atmosphere special to a place or situation as when one is said to carry with him the ‘air of the office’(Fr. air du bureau) or to catch ‘the air of the court,’ Shaks.

Etymology, in other words, suggests that air 1 and air 2 are not necessarily separate and independent words. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of language–a pleasure that poets, one would think, are especially attuned to–is the recognition that a neutral descriptive meaning (e.g., air = gaseous substance) is readily transformed into a metaphoric derivative (e.g., air = manner, look, style). But it is not only a matter of pleasure: the example testifies to the impossibility of policing language Riding-style, of forcing a word to keep one meaning and avoid all transpositions.

Just as one word cannot have, according to the Jacksons, two meanings, so two words cannot have one meaning. This means that there are, strictly speaking, no synonyms. In a long discussion of the relation of the words “change” and “alter,” for example, the Jacksons set out to prove that these two words never mean the same thing. “Change,” they decide, using dozens of examples, always refers to “an oppositeness in a characteristic feature” (RM 191). “A changed color,” for example, “is one in which a characteristic feature of the color acquires a quality opposite in some respect to an antecedent quality of it–that of darkness, for example, in relation to an antecedent lightness” (RM 192). Change always posits a “before” and “after.” “Alter,” on the other hand, means no more than “to make different.” No “before” is posited. For example, “Since he discovered that they were not whole-heartedly his friends, he has altered his behavior towards them” (RM 193). “Change” would not work in this context because it would imply a total reversal of behavior and this is not the case in this instance. And so on.

The irony of this and related examples is that unwittingly the Jacksons are here following Wittgenstein’s axiom that “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.” In examining the difference between “change” and “alter,” they can do no more than to study the ways the two words are actually used. Unlike Wittgenstein, however, the Jacksons claim to know whether the words are used correctly or not. In the above example, if someone said “he has changed his behavior toward them,” the Jacksons would recoil at such incorrect usage.

The most frustrating chapter is #18, “Truth.” For decades, Riding had been trying to find truth, first in poetry, then in language theory. Now, after twenty-five pages of discussion of what truth is not (the difference between “truth” and “verity,” for example, is treated in tedious detail), we learn that truth is “a natural property of the mind’s honest manifesting of its experience in right and full linguistic publication: it has no special place but the special place that is language” (RM 373). A definition wholly tautological since it doesn’t tell us what a “natural property” is or isn’t, what an “honest manifesting” looks like, or what makes something “right and full.”

“The important thing,” says Charles Bernstein in his introduction, “is not to be persuaded by their [the Jacksons’] argument but to respond to them.” “What if,” he asks, “. . . words have unitary meanings, call them Rational Meanings, and what if our poetry, our philosophy, our linguists, our dictionaries, lead us away from this grounded rationality of words–toward some evasive play of relative worth?” (RM xviii). But since the defense of unitary meaning never catches fire, this “what if?” seems less than compelling.

Why, then, to come back to my earlier question, have some of our best critics and most discriminating publishing houses (Carcanet and Persea) taken up the cause of Riding’s poetry and poetics? Why have reviewers of the Robert Nye Selection exclaimed, as does Graham Christian in Library Journal (January 1997), that “The unforgettable music of the lines ‘The rugged black of anger / Has an uncertain smile-border,” and “The poppy edifices of sleep” prepares the reader for the brilliance of the whole [book of] poems”? Or, in the words of Publishers Weekly (27 February 1997), that Riding is “A more rigorous thinker and perhaps a better poet than her recently rediscovered forerunner, Mina Loy”?

Here we must come back to the issue of Riding’s ambition — her impressively large output of poems, short stories, criticism, mythography, biography, and finally philosophical treatise. The male admirers (and I have found few female ones) [10] of Riding’s work seem, like her many actual lovers, to be swept along by the intensity of her commitment, first to poetry, then to its renunciation. “She is,” as her longest-lived and most famous lover Robert Graves put it, a great natural fact, like fire or trees . . . and either one appreciates her or one doesn’t but it is quite useless trying to argue that she should be other than she is.”

And there it is. What Riding had, especially in her youth, was nerve, as in “You just go on your nerve” (Frank O’Hara). Allen Tate, one of her first lovers and fans (he introduced Riding’s poetry to the Fugitives in the early twenties), wrote to Donald Davidson in 1924 that Riding was “A very volatile genius, but nonetheless a genius.” “Yet,” he remarked in an afterthought, “it is too bad that nineteen out of twenty of her poems are nearly worthless” (Baker 61). In later years, Tate came to retract even this backhanded compliment and to speak disparagingly of Riding’s work. But perhaps his youthful assessment was the right one, prompted as it was by the promise of Riding’s early poetry– which is, to my mind, very much her best. For before Riding developed what we might call her “truth” fetish, she wrote brilliant satire in a colloquial language quite unlike the stilted circumspection of her later metaphysical poems on love and life.

Take, for example, the sequence called “Forgotten Girlhood,” written when Riding was only twenty-one and placed at the head of Poems (1938). Here is the opening of the first section, “Into Laddery Street”:

The stove was grey, the coal was gone.
In and out of the same room
One went, one came.
One turned into nothing.
One turned into whatever
Turns into children. (SP 31)

The sardonic nursery-rhyme rhythms and flat diction convey, in a few quick strokes, Riding’s hatred of the petty-bourgeois family life of her shabby and deprived childhood, the permutation of “turned” being especially effective. In the next section, we meet “Herself”:

I am hands
And face
And feet
And things inside of me
That I can’t see.

What knows in me?
Is it only something inside
That I can’t see? (SP 31)

Again, this uses understatement and repetition to good effect: “the things inside me / That I can’t see”–those hidden feminine body parts–shift, in the second stanza, to the mind, the knowing faculty that is also growing “inside” the poet. And in the final section “All the Way Back,” Riding caricatures the institution of bourgeois marriage:

Bill Bubble in a bowler hat
Walking by picked Lida up.
Lida said, ‘I feel like dead.’
Bubble said
‘Not dead but wed.’
No more trouble, no more trouble,
Safe in the arms of Husband Bubble.

A rocking chair, a velvet hat,
Greengrocer, dinner, a five-room flat,
Come in, come in,
Same old pot and wooden spoon,
But it’s only soup staring up at the moon. (SP 34)

Written not long after Riding’s own failed marriage to Louis Gottschalk, “All the Way Back” wittily plays off such Mother Goose rhymes as

Hey, diddle, diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such sport
And the dish ran away with the spoon

as well as the witches’ song (“Bubble bubble / Toil and trouble”) from Macbeth. But what is especially interesting for a reader fresh from Rational Meaning, is to discover a Laura Riding so willing to use ordinary words (“A rocking chair, a velvet hat, / Greengrocer, dinner, a five-room flat”), without worrying about truth-claims or the differences between “change” and “alter,” “verity” and “truth.” A more playful Riding, whose rhymes (“trouble”/ “Bubble”) and images–”it’s only soup staring up at the moon”– forcefully convey her revulsion at the boredom of family routine.

Why did Riding abandon this terse, electric language (a cross between Christina Rossetti, Mother Goose, and Modernist free verse) in favor of such profundities as

But never shall truth circle so
Till words prove language is
` How words come from far sound away
Through stages of immensity’s small
Centering the utter telling
In truth’s first soundlessness?
(“Come, Words, Away,” SP 106)

Perhaps her liaison with Robert Graves led to her yearning for dignity, distance, and elevation (a nice irony in view of her real-life jump from upper-story to earth); perhaps she wanted to be a great English (as opposed to American) poet. Whatever the reason, I doubt that the publication of Rational Meaning will win Riding’s poetry or prose a new and larger audience. But as a summa contra poetica, as Bernstein calls it, it does prompt us to ask some hard questions about the nature of poeticity and to reread, with renewed appreciation, such classics of Modernist poetics as Stein’s How To Write or Pound’s How to Read. Indeed, such admonitions as Pound’s “Use no word that does not reveal something,” take on a whole new dimension.

–Marjorie Perloff


Deborah Baker, Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (New York: Grove Press, 1993), pp. 91-111.

Born in New York City in 1901 to Jewish immigrant parents, Nathaniel Saul and Sarah Edersheim Reichenthal, the poet changed her name to Riding when she left home in 1916. She attended Cornell University but dropped out before taking a degree in order to marry her history professor, Louis Gottschalk. Until 1926 she signed her poems Laura Riding Gottschalk. Then, during her years with Robert Graves (1926-1939), she was Laura Riding–the name under which she is best known–and finally, after Schuyler Jackson, whom she had married in 1941, died in 1968, she called herself Laura (Riding) Jackson. Since she is best known for her collection The Poems of Laura Riding (1938), I will refer to her as Laura Riding here.

The Poems of Laura Riding. A New Edition of the 1938 Collection. Introduction and Appendix by Laura (Riding) Jackson (Carcanet, 1980). The edition was reprinted by New York’s Persea Books in 1988; all references here are to this edition, cited as P.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), Saturday, 30 July 1763, p. 327.

From Riding, Contemporary Poets of the English Language, 1971, cited by Jerome Rothenberg in Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry 1914-1945 (New York; Seabury Press, 1974), p. 222. Subsequently cited as RW.

Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 132-34.

Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (London: Heinemann, 1927), pp. 128, 33. Cited as Survey.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1989), §1. Subsequently cited as PI. Wittgenstein cites the Latin “Cum ipsi (majores homines). . . and gives the translation in a footnote.

I discuss this issue at length in Wittgenstein’s Ladder. Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Exceptions include Elizabeth Friedmann and Sonia Raiziss, who have edited the Riding Portfolio for Chelsea 52 (1993) and various collections of her letters, and Lisa Samuels, whose dissertation on Wallace Stevens and Laura Riding, directed by Jerome McGann at the University of Virginia, will soon be published in book form.

Robert Graves to James Reeves, 1933, cited in Baker 325.