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Laura Riding’s many modes.

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By PETER RILEY.

The Close Chaplet
Introduction by Mark Jacobs

By Laura Riding.

Ugly Duckling Presse 2020 | 144 pages, thin card bound | $20.00  £14.98

THE CLOSE CHAPLET1 was Laura Riding’s first book. It was published in UK by Hogarth Press in 1926 when she was 25, because of Robert Graves’ enthusiasm — which also motivated her to live with the Graves household in England for the next 14 years. Any expectation of what might be considered a typical first venture into poetry, such as assimilation of currently favoured modes or prioritizing a clearly recognisable position, whether traditional or radical, is immediately knocked out of court in the first line—

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

—“As Well As Any Other”

The immediate signal here is that this writing is not addressed to “you, the reader” but to the muse of erotic poetry. Not that there is a lot of openly erotic writing to follow, but you have been warned not to expect a flattering, “accessible” address. And you do get, especially in lines 4—6, a promise of some kind that the ancestral and musical values of poetry are acknowledged — two iambic pentameters, a ballad-like three-beat ending line, as well as the artificially colouring of “adored” and the dramatic gesture in “oh why” with a rhyme scheme (AABCCB) which is maintained in the following two stanzas. It is mainly in very early work such as this that these effects produce a rather sententious tone of address.

What you don’t get with Riding is any firm connection between the writing and recognisable human experience. It is grammatically normal…but it has no location…

What you don’t get is any firm connection between the writing and recognisable human experience. It is grammatically normal, in a somewhat dramatic mode of address but it has no location — “separately” from what? What is this “secrecy” about? Is the tree a real one or a metaphor and if a metaphor a metaphor for what? The writing seems to leap into results without giving us the process. The isolation of some terms suggests a symbolic reading but this is hindered by the comparative plainness of other terms. “the old, adoréd rose” can be a symbol, though of such reverberation and extent that it would be a task to try to define it; “I can dwell separately…” cannot be a symbol, it is too particular and circumstantial – and yet no circumstance is given. The writing seems to want to fuse these two contrastive registers together, for which it needs our collaboration.

Paul Auster has written that Riding’s poems are “…rarely grounded in a physical perception of that world, [but] they tend, strangely, to exist in an almost purely emotional climate, created by the fervor of this metaphysical quest.”2 This is right, I think, in suggesting an emotional/intellectual unity, and following the lines quoted the poet seems to declare such a quest, which can only by attempted as an enterprise of the single voice within its own cognitive sphere, so that recognition is irrelevant and unrelated metaphors are not a problem.

For in untraveled soil alone can I
Unearth the gem or let the mystery lie
That never must be found.

Whatever thought or experience went  into the formation of the text, a door has been locked on it, reducing it to silence. The best we can hope is to infer something of it from the evidence of its remains…

But it seems to me that there is a particular “physical perception of the world” or experience behind many of the poems, which has been deliberately masked. This poem clearly is (or was) a self-declaration concerning partnership, but it has been translated out of the occasion, and it cannot be translated back in. There is no return route, and this is because whatever thought or experience went  into the formation of the text, a door has been locked on it, reducing it to silence. The best we can hope is to infer something of it from the evidence of its remains, which is actually a quite normal situation  in almost any poetry, but here made difficult by the disparity of terms– e.g. the sudden appearance of “the tree”,  in the definite mode but we know of no tree, and none has been implied. The reader is forced to invent the tree herself as symbol or reality or whatever is available to her.

Possibly in this first poem we are offered a clue such as we don’t normally get, in the address to Erato. If we accept the erotic inference, it is possible to read the poem, like many others of hers, as disguised accounts of erotic experience. But this is not definitive, for Erato’s domain was not simply erotic poetry (and her name the Greek for “beloved”); pre-classically, she was the muse of music, song, and dance and so encompasses the performing arts as a whole, and poetry by analogy. She is normally depicted holding a lyre (which in the field of modern poetry means trouble3) .

Can we call her mode “abstract”? Stevens did his, and Riding is obviously on that side of Modernism rather than the Pound and Imagism camp…

Can we call her mode here “abstract”? Stevens did his,4 and Riding is obviously on that side of Modernism rather than the Pound and Imagism camp where words are deliberately de-figurized. That is to say, what she does is a development of what had become a normal way of writing a poem.

A lot of the poems begin with some kind of duality which signals a major human condition to be resolved during the course of the poem, if only by death. The poem “The Nightmare” clearly sets these terms up in a symbolic scenario –

Of the two flowers of sorrow
Growing each one side of the wall of joy,
Which would the hungry child in her nightmare
Pick to wear in her starvation
If she did not fall
Frightened from the wall.

One was real
One was false
The black one or the white one?

In 1938, Random House issued a Collected Poems in which most of these early poems were either present in revised form or omitted. The revisions are always in favour of a more outright, barer (abstract?) presentation, removing the “pleasance” as she called it, of poetry, which included the music or the decor of poetry but also the rhetoric of symbolism. From the lines quoted above she removed “of sorrow”, “of joy”, “in her starvation”, and the last line quoted became “both were the same”.

This conflict, between two language uses, that is, two claims of truth-telling which could perhaps be called direct and oblique, runs right through her career as a poet and is never resolved, culminating in her renunciation of poetry in 1940. But even in this her first book there are poems so obstinately unimaginative as to have already escaped from poetry completely. In “As Well as Any Other”, the conflict lies between the words which seem purloined from experience: any, dwell, men, secrecy… and the resonance of the rose and the mystery.

There is a fluidity and progression among the poems which can produce differing results, though always with some kind of awkwardness rising from the refusal to define. The second poem in the book, “The Quids”, was the one which first attracted Graves’ interest in her, leading directly to her quitting America. It begins:

The little quids, the million quids,
The everywhere, everything, always quids.
The atoms of the Monoton,
Each turned three essences where it stood…

Her mode can and does from time to time ally itself with, among other things, genres of comic verse and song…

It is a substantial poem which goes on to narrate the adventures of all the quids as they risk themselves into grammar as a form of masquerade and proliferate through their carnival until they are recognised and owned by the self, so we and all objects should do gymnastic exercises. I can’t pretend this is an accurate summary, but I couldn’t find anything securely enough articulated to summarize. You could spend for ever following the word quid through all its non-dictionary meanings (i.e. not a pound Sterling and not a bit of tobacco that you spit out) into the structure quid pro quo and end up with a contradiction (a valid and invalid item of exchange or trade, or plain “something”). Anyway, they’re very small and there are a lot of them and there’s no such thing as a Monoton but it’s where they all issue from. But if I think I’m mocking the poem here, this is to forget that it is a poem which invites mockery as it adopts the features of light or comic verse, for her mode can and does from time to time ally itself with, among other things, genres of comic verse and song – not little jokes like limericks but tales, ballads, etc., all tongue-in-cheek. Like the tale of “The Sad Boy” which establishes its mode in the first syllable.

Ay, his old mother was a glad one,
And his poor old father was a mad one,
The two begot this sad one.…

This is a nonsense narrative about the Sad Boy with one shoe and three feet (“This was how the terrible hopping began”), ending in the whole family disappearing into the “rank pond” the shoe was fished from in the first place, to the consternation of the population of Brent. A whole poem like this, or just one or two lines, might veer into the rhythm and rhyme of a music-hall comic monologue or any kind of nonsense-song, but also into the typical content of these entertainments. Her concern seems to have been to attach anything which would eradicate from the text the emotionally laden and emphatic self-discourse by which poetry was normally recognised, seeking “a truth-speaking outside the ‘pleasance’ of poetry.” The mimicking of techniques of popular and children’s entertainment verse was one way of clearing metaphysical weight out of the poem to fill the vacuums thus created with totalising metaphorical writing. and the whole venture an attack on aestheticism.

SO THIS SILLY tale is handled so as to develop serious reverberations, which are more pointedly highlighted in the version in the 1938 Collected Poems (where it is classified among “Poems of Mythic Occasion”). Here the boy’s saddening and impeding footwear begins to bear unavoidable philosophical and possibly political import concerning the cleaving of experience into left and right:

Wherever he went thumping and hopping
Pounding a whole earth into a half-heaven.

Here we have again the advantage (and possibly disadvantage) of re-issuing an early work such as this (which is actually the second modern re-issue, the first being in 2017). The book was carefully arranged by Riding to be progressive, and we can follow this process as it works towards longer and more ambitious texts, and furnishes a non-cognitive entry to the poem, but without forfeiting the final impasse. This trajectory she called the “story” of the poetry. Also, as I have mentioned, a lot of the poems appear in her Collected Poems in revised or curtailed form, or removed altogether, “because they seemed to fall outside the story”. The earlier versions can be instructive, and as far as I can see usually fully as achieved as the later ones, but her revisions aim at a directness and an extension of inference which can render the early text redundant.

We do not inevitably stand completely lost in her poems, in fact we sometimes begin on common ground and are led further and further astray as the poem progresses. One of the openly erotic poems, “One Sense”, begins—

Under apparel, apparel lies
The recurring body.
Night to uncover the surprise
Of nakedness is deep flesh
Is abyss and body under body:
O multiple innocence,
O fleshfold dress.

So far this is an interpretative statement about the erotic experience, worked through the one metaphor, uniting body surface and clothing, with no threatening irrationalities but only an increasingly passionate diction. Then, eleven lines later we are reading—

Smile, death, O simultaneous mouth.
Be clear, identical brow, O death.
Cease, body and binding,
Alternate overtaking.

The erotic subject is here being pushed further towards the entire realm of experience, and the poem’s substance transferred rather slyly from love to death and the progressive thought seems to run away with the poem. Traffic manœuvres are an unexpected and transgressive figure of uncertain implication.

In the Collected Poems, this poem, under the title “One Self”, is reduced from 21 to 8 lines, becoming less of an erotic encounter and more a statement of the identity thesis as a static condition between any two persons—

One self, one manyness,
Is first confusion, then simplicity.
[…]
Cease, inner and outer,
Continuous flight and overtaking.

Again the revision brushes aside poeticised language, and yet poetry had originally been essential to her enterprise – what else could hope to wrest perception into a totalising impasse on the instant, or facilitate an alliance with the reader by offering sheer pleasure?

Sometimes, Riding thrusts us ‘into the world of the enlightenment rationalist philosophers, where “imagination” is inevitably an error…’

So sometimes it is like being thrust into the world of the enlightenment rationalist philosophers, where “imagination” is inevitably an error and the subjective and decorative are refused as mechanisms of discourse. But there are, for instance, poems with declared “subjects” – singular items of perception – which provide a handle through the dense webs of metaphor. There are some short series, such as one on the human head with poems on ears, eyes, etc., which are straightforward but elaborated essays on given subjects; there is a set of five sonnets, “In memory of Samuel”, which by 1938 has vanished completely, which follows through a male life in terms of appetite (probably a masked contemporary) in quite thickly figured but not defeating language, and there is a decidedly “metaphysical” story called “John and I”, also later cancelled. Reference to 1938’s Collected Poems sometimes makes you wonder why she threw out some of her best writings. It is because they did not advance the development or “story” she was constructing in her poetry, did not sufficiently force contrary or diverse perceptions into a unity.

And even where a “subject” is allowed, which is quite often if you go mainly by titles and opening lines, it sometimes gathers its materials into a kind of knot, and then retires, leaving us with a comprehensive pronouncement the truth of which will not subject itself to endorsement by experience, but only by experience which has already passed through a thought process. Each subject (they are more like “zones” than “subjects”) passes through a process which halts at the point of contradiction (or fusion) where an apparently summative declaration, often in dense modern figuration, stands unchallenged. In fact it is poetry itself with its rhythmic and sonic cadentiality, which allows these endings, and, really, it is poetry which permits the writing to take all the risks of a concentrated, richly figured discourse allied with song, an intertwining of the results of highly focussed rationality and roughshod dancing.

There is no escape from the demands of the process, there is no access to the open air, there is no viewing of earthly space. Everything is held in an existential and interpersonal vice from which it cannot escape, but which has its own rewards.

There is a feminist current in the poems, currently amplified of course, indeed it furnishes the principal topic of the introduction. But it is not a feminism which worries about pronouns or statistics. An essay of hers from 1925, “A Prophecy or a Plea”, is usefully attached. It is an account of her beliefs and prophesies regarding poetry, in which the poet is invariably cited as “he”, and the only acknowledgement of women poets at all is of “modern female lyricists who squeal with dainty passion against the pin-pricks of life”. (I suspect that these, minus the lyricism, are still with us, male or female as they may be.) Riding’s feminism is a larger concept and speaks of patriarchies rather than cliques, of the authorship of bibles and of the need to revise creation myths. Her own poetry is proposed as a pioneering non-Patriarchal mode. As for male poets, the only ancestry she admits to is that of Francis Thompson, though there are nods to Whitman, and of course there was a serious collaboration with Graves, which I can’t see as having a great effect. Graves’ skill with metre and rhyme is notable and must have sharpened her sense of form, but so much of his early verse occupies a never-never land which makes you turn towards Walter de la Mare.

I found this essay the most engaging part of the book, at any rate compared with the headache that some of her poems can be. In it she proposes a highly activist aesthetic and many of the demands she makes of the art if it is to survive would serve us very well ninety years later as a counter to the prevailing domestic subjectivism of the “poetry boom”. To paraphrase some of her proposals—

  • Experience is not a subject but a tool…
  • We need to exchange insight for outsight…
  • To be romantics with the courage of realism…
  • Faced with the world the poet does not surrender to it but answers it…
  • For this poetry song is not surrender but salvation…
  • Beauty, like pleasure, is incidental; it is irrelevant to the poem’s structure or even truth, but enters the poem as the poet’s personal contribution…
  • If it reveals a futility it is a futility worth facing…

There are certainly successes among the most serious of these early poems, though I remain unsure that any of them constitutes an entire poem. It is typical that a passage such as this, in the middle of “The Definition of Love” –

But love remembers and cannot think
Love thinks and cannot speak
Love speaks and talks,
Not of love but languages.

not only continues into a much more awkward passage involving ancestry, which abandons the thoughtful rhythmic drive, but also if you follow it to 1938 has been removed completely, in favour of a dryer passage in which the “definition of love” is brought from a passionate admission of difficulty to a dry paradox. If lines like these have to be expunged there is obviously something wrong with the poetic.

Some of the finest pieces in The Closed Chaplet did not make it past 1938. Certainly among these, there is a two-part set called “Virgin of the City” concerning the fall of Troy as a narrative with erotic implications. It shows what she could do if she did not refuse the coherence offered by a fictive occasion through which to build richly figured lines, sometimes even Shakespearean, perfectly satisfied to be a poetical effusion –

What is the dance, braggart of that “other city?
What is the tall stir between our knees,
Intense height severing the streaming floor,
Shallow pit of our genuflexions?

[…]

Two spirits walked the ruins, dazzled with death,
While I evoked live memories in a startled pillow.

[…]

The stricken crowd sink ages into death,
Fall back into their coffins, pull down the lid,
And think of plays in theatres until morning.

I can’t find a trace of this work in the Collected Poems, which has no index. It is difficult to believe that such an intensely conceived writing should not be there somewhere, perhaps chopped up and distributed to parts of new poems. On the other hand it would not be uncharacteristic of her to reject completely one of her best poems on the grounds that it did not further poetry’s progress, but remained attached to a known story of its own, even if a couple of years later poetry’s progress ran it into nonentity.


Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.

NOTES.

  1. “Chaplet” is defined as a wreath for the head, a coronet; also a section of the rosary. “Close” as adjective has many shades of meaning between “closed” and “near to”.
  2. Talking to Strangers: Selected Essays, Prefaces, and Other Writings, 1967-2017, pp 64-5. The comment also appears in the Poetry Foundation‘s website as from an unspecified issue of The New York Review of Books. A selection of Riding’s poems published in Poetry magazine, is here.]
  3. This refers to a long-standing disagreement about the word “lyric”, which to some poets, mostly academic and “innovative”,  indicates a poetical writing concerned exclusively with the poet herself , “directly expressing the poet’s own thoughts and sentiments”, thus an abomination to be avoided. In fact “lyric(al)” means song-like and no more than that, and as Laura Riding recognised, song is essential to poetry — “For this poetry song is not surrender but salvation”.
  4. In “The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract“, Poetry, October 1947.
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