rodney phillips & laura riding




Poet Laura (Riding) Jackson is probably more famous for her renunciation of poetry than for her writing of it. In 1938, her Collected Poems was published when she was only thirty-seven, though she lived another fifty-four years, twenty of them without publication at all. In fact, beginning in 1943 she removed herself and her husband Schuyler Jackson to a citrus farm in Florida, where they created a philosophical treatise on the nature of language and truth. This treatise, characterized by Charles Bernstein as an ars poetica of an antipoetics, was published only after her death and as a result of Bernstein’s championship. Originally conceived as a dictionary of 30,000 entries, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words had, by Riding’s death in 1991, metamorphosed into a 600-page polemic against the concept of “relativity” in the twentieth century. From her hermitage in Florida, Riding spent the second part of her life composing this grand “Epistle to the Thessalonians,” positing the ethical underpinnings for a “personal truth exceeding literary, poetic, and all other categorically professionalized intellectual points of view, and linguistic styles.” It was a private and severe life, devoted to the book—to the cause, not of poetry but of language and truthful communication as solutions to the confusion of the modern world, and as beacons for the human condition. Riding’s life as a prophet in the wilderness had become scrupulously, tirelessly political, and the abandonment of poetry was the necessary sacrifice. 

All this was prefigured in the last months of 1929, when, seeking a refuge from scandal and personal turmoil in London, Riding and her then-consort, the British poet-mythographer Robert Graves, withdrew to the peaceful village of Deya on the Spanish island of Mallorca. The ensuing years were fruitful and dramatic, producing numerous publications and many friendships and broken friendships. But Riding’s disenchantment with poetry also began during this period (two of her collections from the early thirties were entitled, respectively, Poems, A Joking Word and Poet, A Lying Word). Much of the time was also clouded by growing political tensions, which culminated in February of 1936 when the troops of General Francisco Franco left the Canary Islands and invaded other territories of Spain, including Mallorca. Evacuated in August from their paradise, Riding and Graves retreated first to England, and then to Switzerland. Here in 1937 Riding crafted her first major political statement, the mimeographed polemic “A Personal Letter, with a Request for a Reply,” which she sent to more than 400 public intellectuals and writers. Noting the coming of the next world war, Riding asks, “What shall we do?” and offers her own answer: 


Let us first consider who “we” are—we, the inside people. First of all, we are the women. Women are those of us who are most characteristically, most natively, “inside” people. Our responsibility down the centuries has been the order of things inside the houses: the intricate well-being of personal life, its formation and maintenance. And with us, on the inside of things, we have had the poets and the painters and all those men who have been able to treat the outer mechanism of life as subsidiary to its inner realities—who have discovered the inside importance.


Noting that “international affairs give off a curious all-male odour” Riding proposes what is almost a passive resistance of the mind: 


Can we make them stop? For that, surely, is the only remedy? To stop, to rest—it is not more outer routine that is needed, but less. The outer instrumentalities of life have grown too big, too self-serious.


Some of the replies she received, along with her own responses to them, were published in November of 1938 as The World and Ourselves. A second, very rare volume entitledCovenant of Literal Morality: Protocol I was also published in 1938, as an instrument of moral clarification and as a general “instrument of judgement against evil and disorder.” The latter document is based in part on answers to the previous year’s “Personal Letter” and contains nineteen articles of belief and ten prescriptions for behavior. By 1939 Riding had nearly seventy signers to the Covenant—mostly members of her circle, including the critics Allen Hodge and John Aldridge, the military historian Liddell Hart, and the classicist and translator Robert Fitzgerald—whose names were listed in a confidential appendix to yet another mimeographed letter published in March 1938 and addressed “To the Endorsers of the Covenant of Literal Morality.” In this third missive, Riding appealed for the “formation of companies of friends, as units of cooperative communication.” All these documents are eerily abstract. Finally, in September 1938, Riding published her Collected Poems. It was the month of the Munich Pact and the annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany. 

—Rodney Phillips