Thursday, September 29, 2022

versus Laura (Riding) Jackson

Come, words, away to miracle
More natural than written art.
You are surely somewhat devils,
But I know a way to soothe
The whirl of you when speech blasphemes
Against the silent half of language
And, labouring the blab of mouths,
You tempt prolixity to ruin.

--from "Come, Words, Away" by Laura (Riding) Jackson

A couple of years after the publication of her Collected Poems, Laura Riding renounced poetry. She is more famous now for this renunciation and the great deal of writing she did to explain the act, than she is for the poetry she wrote during her twenties and thirties, poetry which influenced many of the Modernists. She is even more famous, I have discovered, for being the mistress/muse/instructor of Robert Graves during his most fertile years as novelist, poet, and critic. A succession of journalists and biographers have demonized Riding (known the last fifty years of her life as Laura (Riding) Jackson), calling her a witch, a madwoman, and the like. I've been reading The Failure of Poetry (a posthumous collection of notes, essays, and letters for a book Riding had planned), and I can tell you that Riding seemed like a difficult person. I find this difficulty fascinating, and because the book is so repetitive and frequently incoherent*, I am wondering more about the author than I am about her concerns with poetry and language.

In the final stages of that career I claimed, I think, more than anyone has ever claimed for [poetry]...I believed that it was [...] both path of the ideal in language and place of its realization. 

Part of the difficulty, it must be admitted, is that Riding has a very high opinion of herself. One can hardly blame her; nearly everyone who met her was struck by her intelligence, and her criticism of poetry is often so astute it's as if she is the only person on earth who knows how to look at a poem. This awareness of her own intelligence, coupled with an awareness of her gifts as a poet (and a prodigy at that, famous and influential in her early twenties), was also yoked to a fragile and immense ego. She was, she claimed, the end of poetry, the poet who had brought poetry as far as it could go, never to be surpassed. Robert Graves claimed to believe in her actual divinity, at least for a time. Riding saw her influence, in terms of poetic style, all around her for the rest of her life, and she was deeply stung by the lack of acknowledgement from those who "stole" from her, and deeply offended that these poets had gladly taken her formal poetic strategies but ignored entirely the philosophical motivation behind the innovations, rendering their own poetry meaningless, mockeries of her work. She also had axes to grind with Auden and Graves, especially the latter:

Mr. Graves is, of course, a very special case, in the history of my influence. For a period of about thirteen years of personal association, he, a man of limited, and largely derivative, literary skill, and constricted intellectual outlook, but of an audacious ambition, suggesting, by its very audacity, intents and virtues beyond the ordinary, had all he could use of my influence. 

Why did Riding give up poetry? Her version goes something like this: before turning away from poetry, she had thought that poetry was

where language could come into its own, and the speakers of words with it [...] Language is as the net of reason thrown over the universal, spread by the force of that all-touching spirit of being which it is human to be all-moved by, so that we are as ones having the net in our hands. then do we but keep the net clean, whole, well-mended, losing nothing caught within it, ordering everything in our mind's safe-keeping, knowing well what we have in each word (for word is the form of that which we catch in the net), we shall fulfill the sense of the net, of the spread over which it is spread, of the spirit that attends the spread and casts the net and gathers in ourselves, and the sense of ourselves. [...] When I found that the promise poetry gave of affording place for an occurrence in which words, World, and ourselves came, through words, under the saving principle of truth was but an invitation to act out--with the happiness of art--the tragedy of the Impossibility of such Good, poetry itself became Impossibility to me.

I am suspicious of this story, because her a priori assumptions about poetry are not necessarily true, and also because the passion with which she addresses poetry and poets seems quite personal and strikes me as the language of one who has suffered some injury, some trauma. I began to poke around in her biography and of course the story of her menage a trois with Graves and his wife Nancy came into view, the dual suicide attempt in London (Riding threw herself out of a fifth-floor window, and Graves--maybe--out of a fourth-floor window moments later; Riding was seriously injured but Graves was not), the skiving off to Majorca and the later parting of ways. Not long after, Riding renounced poetry. I thought for a while that the break with poetry was a reaction to the end of her affair with Graves, but Riding was not the sort to give up being the poet goddess just because one unstable and difficult acolyte was found wanting. Riding thought far too much of herself for that. Her poetry was, after all

a new order, that I instituted, which put a mark of finality between the human existence of history and a human immediacy that stays, and rendered the Past understandable in terms of not just itself.

Then I thought that, despite the seeming lack of autobiography in Riding's poems and other writings, the historical context might at least partly explain why Riding abandoned poetry in 1941. Her parents were poor Jews who emigrated to New York from Germany in the 1880s, and though they were not religious people, having a Jewish heritage might make one sensitive to certain world-historical events in the 1930s. During Riding's final years as a poet, Germany was conducting a mass murder of Jews, and Hitler's Nazi party had already begun their project to deform language itself, to create a language of propaganda that hid the truth behind emotional manipulation. If language itself could not be trusted, if metaphor served to sanitize genocide, then what faith could one have in poetry, the art of words? 

I don't think that political events had anything to do with it, though. Riding was openly opposed to poets using their work to pick sides over the events of the day, no matter how important those events might be. Riding's ideas about truth and poetry were beyond time, beyond history. And poetry's problem was poetry itself: poetry trades in metaphor and emotional manipulation, its symbolism triumphing over its meaning. Words were used not just for figurative language, but also to make combinations of sounds, a music of language, that had nothing to do with truth, and this craft of making music, making rhythm, making rhyme and all the rest of it, left poetry dead, left poetry a beautified and entrancing and seductive corpse that could be made to sing beguiling songs that had no real meaning or value. This was the failing, that the art, the poetic values of poetry, do not enhance language; they form a barrier to speaking truth, and this barrier, no matter how thin one made it, was fatal.

Poetry was dead, so Riding needed to move on, to the realm of pure (what she called "rational") language. In the 1930s, Riding had already embarked on a project called The Dictionary of Exact Meanings, "a collection of 24,000 crucial words of the English language defined in such a way as to erase any ambiguity..." That unambiguous dictionary is clearly a hopeless project, as language is a reflection of the mind, not of the universe, and our minds are nothing if not ambiguous and opaque. There is an inadequacy between the sign and its object, as Charles Sanders Pierce would say, but Riding denied that modern conception of language. Riding was battling historical forces and evolution, so was bound to lose the fight. She went down swinging, though.

None who have drawn upon my poems for advantage to their own have comprehended and acted upon, in so doing, the broadening and strengthening of the intellectual function of poetry that was the basis of, and governing reason of, my enlargement of its linguistic compass.

Riding believed that words have intrinsic (and, I think, fixed) meaning, that they are-and-contain their meaning, that meaning is not relative or imposed upon them by the psychology or social situatedness of the speaker, and that to believe the latter is to betray language somehow, to enter the realm of lies. It's a Wittgensteinian view, that reality flows from language, that to speak truth is to create the world, and that to speak less than truth is to say nothing. It also obviously hearkens back to Old Testament imagery, of God speaking the heavens and earth into existence. Riding herself, I think, worshiped language, or if not language, then some hidden god behind language. She said in 1980 that during her years a a poet, she'd been "religious in her devotion to poetry." She'd claimed for poetry--which she saw as an evolutionary development out of pre-literate religious chanting--the only path to truth, and claimed an exalted status for poets, as priestly truth-tellers among humanity.  She was a true believer, a fanatic, and fanatics are always either saints, or madmen, or both. Her writing about poetry after her abandonment of it has the aura of the disciple who has lost her religion: 

Poetry has been the vessel, in human society, of the objective of spiritual articulateness; and the vessel was not adequate to the pursuit of the objective. [...] Why, if it was so inadequate, was it not abandoned and replaced by something better? Human beings face crises of utterance they cannot avoid without denial of their nature: they have a final sort of speaking to do, and poetry conventionalizes the necessity, frames in the crises in a manner that seems to put the solution of them within safe reach. 

Between the poet as language-priest and the reading congregation there is an unwitting unholy covenant to evade the intellectual, and therefore linguistic, final difficulties, and yet by exploiting a certain "way with words"--the poet leading, the congregation following--to transcend them, dissolve them, soar past them. There is a diabolical side to poetry, which adds overtones of angelic beauty to the din of ordinary parlance. This is its futility, its ministering to the vanities rather than to the needs of human beings in their dependence on words, its raising them to heights of illusion of linguistic felicity only to let them drop down to real speaking ground with no increase of capacity to make--or rather, let--words carry full burden of meaning. Ultimately, in the human production and enjoyment of poetry, poetry proves good only for itself. It provides something to admire--to do which may be argued to be useful and also argued to be an empty justification for its existence.

As the apostate is, finally, how I've come to view Riding. She was the high priestess of a universal religion that has been forgotten, and poetry was a false idol she put by to become the high priestess of language-itself, of words-themselves, and she is the oracle of the god, and the scourge of heaven, and she is blinded by her own divinity and wisdom and enraged that we are not similarly blinded. Or, as I put it more than once to Mighty Reader, Laura (Riding) Jackson is brilliant but a bit of a crank, but I can see why people in close proximity were drawn to her, as the force of her personality is quite powerful, even just in these notes. In the flesh, she must've been quite something. A lot of her claims about poetry-as-poetry, ignoring all the "poetry is a dead end" stuff, is compelling and informative and useful if you want to be a better reader/writer of poems. When she's not blinkered by personal animus (and even sometimes when she is), she can reveal what there is in a poem in ways I've never seen anyone else do. A remarkable critical facility, quite impressive and one that cannot be dismissed. But as a personality, a bit of a narcissistic crank. She confused all of poetry with her own poet-activity, but there is no failing in poetry; it is merely that (as Paul Auster notes) "poetry as she conceived of it was no longer capable of saying what she wanted to say," so she abandoned it. She spent the rest of her life simultaneously decrying poetry and drawing attention to the triumphs she'd had there.

Despite all the wrong-headedness Riding displays about language and the art of poetry, despite her insistence that we all stop and look at her in admiration and gratitude, there is a strange and appealing optimism at the heart of her battle. Riding believes that truth, and therefore goodness, inheres within us as the root of our humanity, and that if we could only find a way of speaking that truth, we would become good. We would, maybe, restore to the world the primal good that God saw in His original speaking, would ourselves speak our way back into Paradise. Maybe Riding hoped for that paradise until the day she died. That hope is not nothing.

*It is ironic that Riding's quest for an unambiguous speech resulted in prose that is often nearly impossible to read. I am not the only person who has noticed this irony, but I might be the only reader who is amused by it, because I have great empathy for the artist whose faith in their art is tested by ideas of truth, so much that speech becomes inarticulate because one knows not which way to turn the phrase in order to avoid falsehood.

Also: I am not a (Riding) Jackson scholar, and there are a variety of conflicting versions of her life (and of Grave's life), and I may have some of my dates wrong here. Mostly my concern is with her as a complex character, with the tension between how she was clearly right and wrong about the same subject, taking extreme positions, living within her odd personal egotism. This could be one of my "how to write a novel" posts, because a lot of this sort of thinking goes into my process of working out a book. You were not wondering, but now you know anyway.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

By night star-veiling, and by day/Darkening the light and blotting out the sun


Below a vast column of
                      smoke, heat, flame, and
                                  wind, I rose, swaying

                                                               and tottering on my
                                                    erratic vortex, extemporizing
                               my own extreme weather, sucking up

 acres of scorched
           topsoil and spinning it
                                outward in a burning sleet

                                                                 of filth and embers that
                                           catapulted me forward
                                 with my mouth open

 in every direction at once. So
                     I came for you, churning, turning
                                         the present into purgatory

Excerpted from "Wasteland: on the California Wildfires" by Forrest Gander, whose 2019 collection Be With won the Pulitzer Prize (but is good poetry despite the award). Hank Thoreau supplied the snippet I stole for the title of this post.

Our house sits on the edge of a mesa-like peninsula, the ground sloping away to the north and east. Yesterday morning I stood in the street and watched Mighty Reader cycle down to the intersection half a block away, a point maybe thirty feet lower in elevation than where I stood. A gray haze filled the street down there, a haze that I knew grew thicker as one got closer to sea level, thickest down along the water where Mighty Reader would ride on her way to the office. On Tuesday evening we'd looked west and seen the sun low in the sky, dark and awesome and seeming to boil, painting the city with reflected fire, scorching air already heavy with cinders. It's hard to breathe on days like that; my eyes, nose and throat are raw and irritated. First by flood, I think, then by fire. O brave new world, that has such calamity in it.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

These are the joys Euripides has brought me!

Aristophanes, in Thesmophoriazusae (also known as The Poet and the Women), mounts a spirited defense of Euripides, who in Medea and (at least in his original version of) Hippolytus had gained something of a reputation in Athens as a hater of women. If you ask me, this reputation was undeserved; Euripides' portrayals of his characters were astute psychological studies, and he did not go easy on anyone. Undeniably his sympathies were with victims of all sorts, and many of his plays focused quite sympathetically on women. With the exception of Sophocles' Elektra, I don't know of any portrayal of women in the Ancient Greek tragedies that were more human and humane than those of Euripides.

Nonetheless, Aristophanes' play begins with Euripides expressing his fear that the women who've gathered to celebrate the Thesmophoria festival are going to condemn him for his misogyny and put him to death. Euripides asks the tragic playwright Agathon (a real-life contemporary of Euripides) to infiltrate the festival in drag and speak in his defense. Agathon is after all introduced dressed and speaking as a woman, his words so perfect that Euripides' cousin Mnesilochus practically swoons. Clearly, Agathon is the man--or woman, rather--for the job. Alas, he doesn't want the job ("Each man must bear his sorrows for himself," he says). Euripides then turns to cousin Mnesilochus, whose beard he shaves off, whose backside he scorches, and whose body he dresses as a women. Mnesilochus then trots off in disguise, getting to the temple just in time to join the women, who are trying Euripides in absentia. The speeches of the Assembly are quite funny. Mnesilochus accuses Athens' women (including "himself") of far worse behavior than anything found in Euripides' plays. This speech, oddly enough, does not sway the Assembly, and Euripides is found guilty. Meanwhile, Mnesilochus is discovered, arrested, and condemned. Things look pretty bad for our poet and his cousin.

This is where things get meta, as the kids say. Euripides--the real one, I mean--has lately written a series of plays in which women are rescued from terrible fates, and now here Aristophanes has put Euripides himself into a play where a woman (sort of) needs to be rescued. What happens next is a set of episodes where Mnesilochus and Euripides take on the roles of characters from Euripides' "rescue plays," in the hopes that (after all, we are watching a play so everyone on stage is an actor, right?) these fictional rescues will cross over into the "real" world and Euripides can spirit his cousin to safety. This is a wildly creative idea on Aristophanes' part. In his earlier plays, Aristophanes has broken the fourth wall, as the saying goes, by having characters speak to the audience directly, but he goes further here in disregarding many other conventions of the stage, or at least he has "Euripides" attempt to break the rules of whatever reality we're supposed to be in. Alas, the women do not play along, do not believe Euripides is the real Menelaus come to rescue the real Helen, etc. Euripides' art is not successful in swaying the real women of Athens. This is sophisticated literary stuff, multilayered and laugh-out-loud funny into the bargain.

By my count, seven of Euripides' plays are invoked or parodied by Aristophanes here:

Hippolytus (Mnesilochus asks Euripides if he dressed as a woman while writing Phaedra's speeches)

"satyrs" (I assume Mnesilochus means all of Euripides' satyr plays, and I further assume he's imagining Euripides dressed as a satyr, with horns, furry legs, and a gigantic phallus)

Telephus (who held the infant Orestes at knife point while taking refuge in a temple)

Palamades (in which, probably, Palamades is stoned to death after being falsely accused of treachery by Odysseus)

Helen (rescued from Egypt by Menelaus)

Andromeda (where the heroine, chained to a rock for sacrifice to the sea beast, is rescued by Perseus). I do not quite understand if the amusing Echo character here is supposed to be somehow Echo herself appearing on the comic stage from the real Euripides' play, or Aristophanes' Euripides character who is playing Echo from off-stage. It's quite recursive, the Andromeda bit.

Iphigenia in Taurus (where Iphigenia recounts her rescue at Aulis, when Artemis substituted a faun as the sacrificial victim and saved her).

In the end, "Euripides" must pretend that he's no longer acting one of his plays, and his Iphigenia strategy is played as real life, the poet putting on a dress to pass as a procuress who offers a dancing girl to a policeman in order to spring Mnesilochus from jail. This is a low comedy version of the Artemis rescue at Aulis. Euripides is no longer selling art, he's selling sex and jokes. He's become an entertainer rather than a poet. Of course, that dodge only works on the men, not on the women. 

I think Aristophanes is doing something here with the ideas of form and influence. Euripides, against all expectations, is trapped in a Euripidean dramatic situation inside an Aristophanes comedy, and the only way to survive is to use Aristophanes' methods. "Euripides," acting like Euripides, cannot win here. It is the comic poets who can truly sway the public, admirable as the tragic poets may be.

There is also an interesting theme, right from the outset, of men putting themselves in the place of women. Agathon says, just a few minutes into the action, that when a poet "sings of women, he assumes a woman's garb, and dons a woman's habits." Euripides ends up in a dress.

Aristophanes displays an extensive knowledge of Euripides' plays in "The Poet and the Women," and treats him pretty gently here, too. It's clear that the comic poet thought the tragic poet was being unfairly slandered, and was moved to speak on his behalf, to sway the public as only Aristophanes could. I'll bet Euripides laughed his little heart out over this comedy.

I read Benjamin Rogers' 1911 translation of the play. Pretty good work.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

You have just told me something horrible.

"In these months," he said, "I have driven a great many of my thoughts underground. I have dug out a little grave for them."

"What do you mean?" I said. "In these months, in these last months, since you have been engaged to me?"

"Why yes, of course," he said. "You know what yourself, too. We are practically always silent, now, together. We remain almost always silent, because we have begun to drive our thoughts underground, right at the bottom, right at the bottom inside ourselves. Then when we begin talking again, we only say things of no account.

"Formerly," he said, "I told you everything that came into my head. Not any more, now. Now I have lost the wish to tell you things. What I think about now, I tell a little of it to myself, and then I bury it. I send it underground. Then, little by little, I shall not tell things any more even to myself. I shall drive everything underground at once, every random thought, before it can take shape."

[...]"This is horrible," I said. "You have just told me something horrible."

"Didn't you know it was horrible?" he said. "You knew it, too, yourself. You knew that you had driven underground this self-awareness. You, too, have done what they all expected you to do. You went with your mother to the upholsterers, and furniture shops and linen shops. And all the time inside yourself you could hear the long cries of your soul, but always farther off, always fainter, always covered with more earth."

[...]"My love for you," he said, "was not a great love. You know that well. I have often told you it was not a great love, impassioned, romantic. There was something, all the same, something intimate and delicate, and it had its own fulfillment and its own freedom. We had something there; it was not much, but it was something. It was something very slight, very fragile, ready to break up at the first puff of wind. It was something which could not be captured and brought to the light or it would die. We have brought it to the light and it is dead, and we shall never recover it any more."

This is from Natalia Ginzburg's 1961 novel Voices of the Evening (translated by David Low).  It is the story of how the events immediately before and after World War II have damaged the lives of a small Italian town's populace, though of course none of them sees themselves as damaged. A short novel, comic and tragic in equal measures. Good stuff. Ginzburg's structural device of sectioning off the action with monologues (by women to whom nobody is listening) is an inspired and entertaining innovation. I should read more of her books.