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This poem is taken from PN Review 78, Volume 17 Number 4, March - April 1991.

The Early Poems (1920-1925) Elizabeth Friedmann
When Laura Riding sailed for England in January, 1926, she left behind many of her personal belongings, in the safekeeping of the friend with whom she had been sharing an apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. Among these items was a box containing the typescripts of more than 200 poems, some of which had been submitted for publication and a small number of which had been published in magazines such as The Fugitive, Poetry, Nomad, Lyric West, Contemporary Verse. As a young poet she had achieved recognition in many quarters. In 1924 the editors of The Fugitive had awarded her 'The Nashville Prize' for her poetry, and soon afterward she was invited to become a full member of their group. In the fall of 1925 she arrived in New York ready to pursue a life devoted to poetry, having determined that 'to live in, by, for the reasons of, poems is to habituate oneself to the good existence'.

In New York she gained immediate acceptance into literary circles, among those who saw her as a bright new talent on the scene. But she describes this period as one of 'uncertainty', as she began to find her American fellow-poets 'more concerned with making individualistic play upon the composition-habitudes of poetic tradition than with what concerned me: how to strike a personal accent in poetry that would be at once an authentic truth-impulsion of universal force'. She saw them lacking a seriousness, both poetic and personal, which she considered to be the poet's essential attribute. So when a letter came from Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson in England, inviting her to join them in their journey to Egypt, she accepted their invitation with alacrity, hoping to find minds across the Atlantic in consonance with her own. She stayed abroad for thirteen years, living in Egypt, England, Switzerland, France and Spain. In Europe she found, 'instead of crowding individualism, a loose assemblage of unsure positions, occupied with a varying show of modernistic daring'. But she had there 'solitariness in which to probe the reality of poetry as a spiritual, not merely literary, inheritance'. Her probing finally brought her to the point of renouncing poetry, after her return to America, as she had come to find poetic utterance inherently incapable of yielding the full truth-potential of words.

During her years abroad, her friend in New York became a practising attorney, and later a distinguished judge. Their friendship was sustained by frequent correspondence and continues to this day. In 1979 the friend discovered, in storage at her country home in Connecticut, an envelope containing the poems left behind in 1926. She made immediate arrangements for their return, and they were subsequently acquired by the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, with Laura (Riding) Jackson retaining copies.

She has consented to their publication now because she has found in them 'a quality that makes them extra-precious'. 'They excite in me touches of pathos,' she said recently, 'and they are especially touching because of a useful quality in the poems which worked itself into them and became transformed into a settled tone.'

Readers will sense the same confident authorial presence in these youthful poems as can be found in the Collected Poems of 1938, their personal accent unwaveringly governed by a 'truth-impulsion of universal force'. They are experiments in what poetry can do. They are early stepping stones on the path that led her ultimately to a realization of what poetry cannot do. They introduce many of the themes which attain fuller development in her later work, and they are striking in their freshness of vision and their scrupulosity of word-use. Some of them - I'm thinking particularly of 'Doomed' and 'To This Death' - speak to concerns which we think of as uniquely contemporaneous, and others show evidence of early explorations into the nature of 'woman' and 'truth' which culminate in her masterpiece of personal candour, The Telling, published in 1972.

For those familiar with the work of Laura Riding and Laura (Riding) Jackson, these poems will undoubtedly provide illumination, and for those approaching her work for the first time, they might well serve as beacons for the mind's journey.

ELIZABETH FRIEDMANN

INVOCATION FOR BIRDS

Mists of our blindness, something be,
Be birds, we have no birds this spring.
We were busy with a new year
In our breasts,
Birds have always been.
Why are nests
This year denuded, if we forgot,
And mists up over memories
Flying lightning wingless
...


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