Laura (Riding) Jackson: Against the Commodity of the Poem (part 2)


By Andrea Rexilius

<< Continued from Part 1

In her poem “Disclaimer of the Person,” she begins “I say myself”(251), a line that actually seems to claim rather than disclaim the person. She goes on to describe the beginning of self as not an actual beginning, but rather an end, the end of not saying. The self begins with awareness of the self. Her sense of the creation myth is not related to deity, but to consciousness. Consciousness itself is the deity. One may even extend this to suggest that self also is deity. Time and space are collapsed and her saying becomes circular, or spiral, always building off of itself so that each new statement is slightly different than the previous one. At the peak of this spiral we find the lines, “What is one thing? / It is all things myself / And each as myself / And none myself” (253).  Now the disclaimer sets in. “Myself alone is the one thing only. [claiming] / I am not I [claiming and disclaiming at once] / I am the one thing only / Which each thing is” [disclaiming the person for being] (253). In The Enemy Self, Barbara Block Adams describes Laura (Riding) Jackson’s poetry as “intense and ethereal, like Dickinson’s, and, paradoxically, expansive and inclusive, like Whitman’s”(1). In this poem in particular I read Whitman. This poem is both a “song of myself” and a vision not unlike The Sleepers‘ democratic notion of self as universal. That she ties this paradox of self to speech, to “saying,” is interesting. By doing so she suggests that one speaks both as oneself and as all selves, not about, but as. Her disclaimer of the person is an act of giving up the ownership of “saying” and simultaneously being responsible for that saying. When the self is anonymous, she suggests, rather than having less responsibility for the moral value of what one is saying, one has more. When “I am not I,” I am myself and I am beyond myself. The burden of realization does not have claim to a body (to a person) but to speech itself. Our becoming (via this poem’s creation myth) is languaged rather than bodied. As Wexler writes, “For her, thought was the total experience of the consciousness that distinguished human beings from the natural world, and she made her poetry a record of her mind becoming aware of itself” (40).  One might say that her poetry is not about a relationship between the body and the world, but about a relationship between the mind and the world. Therefore, “…Riding managed to make thought as vivid in her poems as sensory experience is in other poet’s work” (Wexler, xii).

Her collection of early poems, First Awakenings, details another way of considering “self” within her work. According to Wexler, in this work, “Riding divorces the emotional experience and insight of each poem from whatever occasion inspired it. Regarding her feelings as instances of universal human emotions, she avoids describing details that would isolate any incident in a particular life” (17).  The first poem in the collection, “A Bird Speaks” exemplifies this. Because the speaker in the poem is the bird, (Riding) Jackson is able to establish the distance the other poems in this collection require. It is the distance of being human, of being an anonymous speaker, or of being leveled by the use of second person to refer to self. The bird (as poet) speaks to the human (poet), “You think I am a pretty little bird, don’t you/ Poised here on the tip of the roof…/ Perhaps you will walk home thinking of me / And write a little poem: / A pretty little bird / Delicately poised / Against the sky” (3). The poem is not actually about these images. It is about the mind of the bird via the mind of the poet, and the mind of the poet via the mind of the bird. Strangely, the poem is also about being human. As the bird is personified, the human becomes nondescript and externalized. The poem details a landscape of the mind (the human mind, even as it speaks for the bird) and ignores the “face” of the person speaking, so that what is human is not tied to an individual, but to all individuals as witness.

Laura (Riding) Jackson’s most narrative poems, the “poems of mythic occasion” again detail a personal history that transcends any specific self by focusing on human relationships to environmental surroundings and to body. The long poem, “Forgotten Childhood” tells the story of “Lida,” more or less. In the second section of the poem, entitled “Herself,” she writes: “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?” (3). Perhaps in these lines we see most explicitly the terms of the creation myth found in “Disclaimer of the Person.” Lida is primarily concerned with what makes her a self. She is a self because she has a body, but that body doesn’t really explain why she is. Lida is also questioning the origins of consciousness or of “what knows in [her].” The paradox of being is that one knows that their own knowing eludes them. The self does not know exactly where or what the self is. Her poetic aim is not to convey or argue but to inquire, and to encounter. The “truth” she is after is not of an individual self (the bordered body), but of Self (the unbordered as poetic body).

It is through these ideas of self that we are led to Laura (Riding) Jackson’s beliefs about language, and through these beliefs, to what it is that makes her poems anti-social, or opposed to poem as product. Ironically, I find her clearest statement about what it is she risked in her poems in The Telling (1967), the first book she wrote after her renunciation of poetry:

In every human being there is secreted a memory of a before-oneself; and, if one opens the memory, and the memory, and the mind is enlarged with it, one knows a time which might be now, by one’s feelings of being somehow of it…And, returning from the memory, our minds are nearly our mind; and the One of ourselves we nearly know better than ourselves…Thus we become able to speak to one another as tellers of a living story, of the truth of which we are one another’s surety…The memory we have in us of a time before physical time is the memory of this end [of utter soul-being]: our memory of utter soul-being, possessed through the body’s witness to what-has-occurred, is a memory of its ceasing (25-29).

Laura (Riding) Jackson’s poetics, when it was a poetics, was to reach a state of knowing, through the medium of language, of what was before we were divided into selves. Her concern is similar to the concern a scientist has for the origin of the universe. She wants to know at what point and how consciousness, or sense of self arose. Her poetic risk is that in order to create actual poetry she must loose for a time the sense of where she ends and others begin. “We do not stop in our bodies, but outstrip them. We are more than our bodies, and can remember what was before them” (Telling, 27). It is perhaps this type of remembering that poetry desires. It is the “telling” of a “living story” that the poem requires. The “truth” she speaks of is not discovered (as an object), it is experienced (as an encounter). “…[F]or poetry is that form of discourse whose only object is to allow language to display itself, to show how it lives” (McGann, 472). When she writes, “The end of poetry is not to create a physical condition which shall give pleasure to the mind…. The end of poetry is not an after-effect, not a pleasurable memory of itself, but an immediate constant and even unpleasant insistence upon itself” (Anarchism, 35), she is insisting that the poem is not simply a material, that language is not a material, but in a way, is a living creature that is aware, that is imbued with insight and information, that the poem is insightful beyond the poet. It is, as Jerome McGann would say, “revelatory” as opposed to “knowledgeable” (457). It is this idea of “truth” or discovery that she was working towards, and the only reason she wrote her poems. In fact, in the 1938 preface to the collected poems she would say, “writing is not my work; it is the form my work takes”(5).

Ultimately Laura (Riding) Jackson would reject the poem and look toward language itself as a way to reach her goal. What was poetry’s failure for Jackson? In his essay, “Laura Riding’s Quarrel with Poetry,” Masopust defines it this way: “[t]he problem of poetry…lies in poetry’s divided nature as a form of spiritual utterance on the one hand and a form of art on the other” (45). Poetry seems to have lost its ability to develop anti-socially; it has become artifice. According to Masopust, she also relinquishes the possibility of Self in the poem. “Because poetry stresses the physical aspect of words, it cannot fulfill the true function of language, which she believes is to ‘transmute our private bodily selfhood’ into a representative, universal selfhood” (45).  In this situation, the reason we wrote poetry becomes the same reason we don’t write it. However, many other critics find additional reasons for her renunciation. For instance, Ashton claims,  “[f]or (Riding) Jackson, the failure of poetry came not from a discovery that the poet couldn’t control the poem, but that the poet couldn’t control what her readers would make of it” (96). And Wallace notes, “…Riding represents the case of a writer who has been effectively decanonized because of her insistence upon being the ultimate referent of her own work and because of her refusal to cede either interpretive or descriptive authority over her work” (111).  This is the darker, or strangely more personal side to the poem that becomes anti-social, or silent.


Works Cited

Adams, Barbara Block. The Enemy Self: Poetry and Criticism of Laura Riding. Ann Arbor: U-M-I Research Press, 1990.

Ashton, Jennifer. “Laura (Riding) Jackson and T=H=E N=E=WC=R=I=T=I=C=I=S=M.” From Modernism to Postmodernism:    American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 95-118.

Friedmann, Elizabeth and Laura (Riding) Jackson. “Interview with Laura (Riding) Jackson.” Chelsea 49. Ed. Sonia Raiziss. New York:   Chelsea Associates, Inc. , 1990. p. 3-27.

Jackson, Laura (Riding). First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding. Eds. Elizabeth Friedmann, Alan J. Clark, and Robert Nye. New York: Persea Books, 1992.

Jackson, Laura (Riding). The Poems of Laura Riding: A Newly Revised Edition of the 1938-1980 Collection. New York: Persea Books, 1938/1980.

Jackson, Laura (Riding). The Telling. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Masopust, Michael, A. “Laura Riding’s Quarrel with Poetry.” South Central Review, Vol.  2, No. I. (Spring, 1985), pp. 42-56. JSTOR. <http: //>.

McGann,Jerome J. “Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Literal Truth.” Critical Inquiry, Vol.   18, No. 3. (Spring, 1992), pp. 454-473. JSTOR. <http: //>.

Riding, Laura and Robert Graves. A Pamphlet Against Anthologies. New York: Ams Press, 1928.

Riding, Laura and Robert Graves. A Survey of Modernist Poetry. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1927.

Riding, Laura. Anarchism is Not Enough. Ed. Lisa Samuels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Riding, Laura. Contemporaries and Snobs. New York: DoubleDay Doran & Company, Inc., 1928.

Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Laura Riding and the Politics of Decanonization.” American      Literature, Vol. 64, No. 1. (Mar., 1992), pp. 111-126. JSTOR. <>.

Wexler, Joyce Piell. Laura Riding’s Pursuit of Truth. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979.


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