Laura (Riding) Jackson: Against the Commodity of the Poem (part 1)

Laura Riding


by Andrea Rexilius

Why do we write poetry? According to Laura (Riding) Jackson, when she still believed in and wrote poetry, it is not to create “art” but to discover “an advanced degree of self” (Anarchism, 119). To further explain her notion of this “self” as a system of poetics, she writes, “when this self has been isolated from all that is impression and impurity of contact in an individual, then a ‘thing,’ a work, occurs, it is discharged from the individual, it is self; not his self, but Self” (Anarchism, 6). Poetry then is transcendent of the individual who is writing the poem; art perhaps is not. Poetry is a process that reveals or recognizes a beginning, an origin that causes all humans to become defined by the commonality of awareness, of being, of selfhood. The border, the “degree in the consciousness beyond which the consciousness itself cannot go” is for Laura (Riding) Jackson the edge of our capacity to know ourselves. The goal of poetry is to reach this edge, to lean as far outside of the body as is possible without collapsing in on the self. Poetry is a telescope, or a microscope that focuses awareness of the body, and through the body focuses an awareness on self, not an individual self, but the selfness of being.  Given this view of poetry, it is of little surprise that Laura (Riding) Jackson was greatly and continuously offended by notions of poetry as commodity, as game, or as “public flattery.” Her integrity as a writer lies in her extreme seriousness about the act of writing. It is for her alchemical, and timeless. It answers not to public opinion or to poetic movement or to one’s contemporaries. Poetry may not even answer to the poet herself.  Thus, “Riding concluded that poetry is ‘perhaps the only human pursuit left still capable of developing anti-socially,’ that is, to serve only poetry’s intrinsic needs” (Adams, 38).

During her early career, Laura (Riding) Jackson authored a series of critical texts that further explicate her take on the purpose of poetry and aid in her definition of the poem as “anti-social.”   In A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), co-authored by Robert Graves, she / they write:

The quarrel now is between the reading public and the modernist poet over the definition of clearness. Both agree that perfect clearness is the end of poetry, but the reading public insists that no poetry is clear except what it can understand at a glance; the modernist poet insists that the clearness of which the poetic mind is capable demands thought and language of a far greater sensitiveness and complexity than the enlarged reading public will permit it to use. To remain true to his conception of what poetry is, he has therefore to run the risk of seeming obscure or freakish, of having no reading public; even of writing what the reading public refuses to call poetry, in order to be a poet (84).

During a period when poetic form is switching out of traditional rhyme and meter into free verse, Jackson and Graves are aware that the  “plain reader” may no longer know how to read poetry. The most important argument here is that it is the reader who must adapt to the poem, not the poem or the poet to the reader. Survey is known for its introduction of what is now called New Criticism or close reading. Jackson and Graves apply this method (for the first time) to poems by Cummings, Pound, Eliot and other well-known modernists in an attempt to reveal to the public how one goes about reading poetry that is not reigned in by traditional land-marks. They also make a distinction between modernist poetry that is actually doing something, that is working, and poetry that merely hides or poses as something else, as for instance, music or painting or mathematics or symbol. In addition, they argue against capitalism’s effect on modern writing where commerce, competition, and “conscientious imitation of the time-spirit” prevail over actual poetic discovery (158). Jackson and Graves believe that “All poetry that deserves to endure is at once old-fashioned and modernist” (70). It is a poetry that exists in two places at once, in the realm of Before and in the realm of Now. This last statement sounds like it could be in alliance with many other modernist authors and slogans; however, Laura (Riding) Jackson, at least, is more complicated than this.

In Contemporaries and Snobs (1928) she brutally critiques some of these same contemporaries. For instance, she came to believe Imagism and other poetic movements were just fashion statements, marketable ways to renew the public’s interest in the poem. And that the use of the long poem (think Pound, Eliot, Sitwell, etc.) were just “contemporary efforts to make the poetic absolute consist in sheer structural impressiveness” (47). And that Joyce, Woolf, and Proust all wrote “false novels” (68-69). Just one year later she is distressed that “More and more the poet has been made to conform to the literature instead of literature to the poet—literature being the name given by criticism to works inspired by or obedient to criticism” (10). She finds that poetry is being written so that it can be criticized and feels that this system of production damages the poem’s ability to invent. “Poetry had become the property of society and like any other manufactured commodity had ceased to have any organic connection with its makers” (24). The self and the Self of the poem had gone missing, the individual replaced by the social.

One last critical work by Laura (Riding) Jackson that is worth mentioning in this context is the Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928), also co-authored by Robert Graves. In this text the two authors take on the “market value” of poetry and the “problem of audience” (Adams, 29). Here again we find that the dilemma is entangled with ideas or definitions of why we write poetry, or what poetry is for. They condemn the anthology and the critic in the following statement, “The critic’s business has come to be to condone the general reader’s willful inertness; to reprove or neglect poets who do not take these into account; and to bear out his assumption that the poet’s first thought in writing a poem is its eventual inclusion in an anthology” (88). The distress and anger here is clearly not about being unrecognized by the public, but about what is happening to the meaning of the poem. She writes, “Creation and critical judgement being made one act, a work has no future history with readers; it is ended when it is ended” (Contemporaries, 132). The poem as commodity is consumable and disposable. It is cute. It is easily dissected. It does not speak to what poetry should or is able to speak to, and that again, is to her idea of Selfness, an idea that does not exist and cannot exist on the surface of the marketable world, but that lunges much deeper, into an almost metaphysical understanding of, and relationship to the world. It is the anti-social (the unmarketable) aspects of poetry that she is vying for, because without this, poetry will no longer be poetry, it will be something else.

How then is the poem perceived within Laura (Riding) Jackson’s poetry?  If, as was said before, we write poetry to encounter “an advanced degree of self,” how does this version of the self become present within a poem, or as a poem? How is the poem transcendent of the individual who is writing the poem, or how does it manifest this idea of Self? Are any of these things even possible? Ultimately Laura (Riding) Jackson would say they are not, that poetry fails in its many attempts. At the moment I am not interested in what she perceived as failure; I am more interested in her success, words in the form of poetry upon the page. I would like to begin exploring her poems by asking in what way Laura (Riding) Jackson’s poetry is anti-social, and what in her view as poet, are poetry’s “intrinsic needs.” In the 1938 preface to her Collected Poems she writes, “One reads to uncover to oneself something that would otherwise remain unknown—something that one feels it is important to know” (PLR, 482). What do we, as readers come to “know” by reading her poems? What, in particular, do we come to know about her ideas of “self”?

Continue to Part 2 >>

References will follow the conclusion of part 2.

Andrea Rexilius is the author of Half of What They Carried Flew Away (Letter Machine, 2012) and To Be Human Is To Be A Conversation (Rescue Press, 2011). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where she is also the Summer Writing Program Coordinator, the Editor-in-Chief of Bombay Gin Literary Journal, and the Co-Founder and coordinator (with Michelle Naka Pierce) of the biennial conference [Dis]Embodied. Séance, a chapbook, has recently been published by Coconut Books.

Laura Riding Jackson was born on January 16, 1901 in New York City. Jackson published collections of short stories and essays under several forms of her name and the pseudonym Madeleine Vara. Her most successful book was Lives of Wives (Random House, 1939), a work of historical fiction. She completed more than a dozen volumes of poetry before renouncing the craft as “inadequate” in the late 1930s. She continued to write prose throughout her life, however. Jackson died in 1991 in Wabasso, Florida. – See more here