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This item is taken from PN Review 82, Volume 18 Number 2, November - December 1991.

IN SEPTEMBER P·N·Review lost a valued friend. Laura (Riding) Jackson died in Wabasso, Florida, at the age of 90.

Obituarists - apart from Alan Clark in the Independent, who devoted his penetrating essay to the writer's work - concentrated on her life, especially her controversial years with Robert Graves. Indeed, the anonymous Times obituarist, whose animosity was clear in every phase, declared that 'those apparently dedicated to her were too evidently compensating themselves for feelings of inferiority'. Legend, fact and fiction merged in his account, which repeated the often lurid and not always accurate anecdotes of Graves's biographers. The challenge of Laura Riding's work which writers ('too evidently compensating themselves for feelings of inferiority') including Empson, Auden, Roberts, Thomas, Ashbery, Hughes and Larkin answered in different ways, hardly featured. The facts of her achievement as a poet, critic, story-writer, novelist and prophet were overlooked.

Eavan Boland, reviewing studies of the work of Sylvia Plath in this issue of P.N.R, comments: 'That two books can appear, apparently about Plath, in which her poetry - however much it is quoted and invoked - is so truly peripheral raises essential questions.' Considerations of her life have displaced a concern with the poems thenlselves: 'The debate is a mess - a continuing series of sensational disclosures and ideological non-starters.' Boland, like other readers of Plath, has become 'a helpless witness to a process of distraction which has grown uglier With time'. Her project now is to become 'what I once was and will always be: her loving reader'.

Some poets invite distraction of a biographical or ideological nature: their lives are intrinsically more compelling then their work. Yet in this century the radical challenge of a number of writers has been lost in an easy interest in 'the life'. Life studies can illuminate and entertain. They can also, as in the case of Plath, displace the work or so condition our approach to it that its vitality is attenuated, its enabling challenge deflected. Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot and many others have in recent years been made answerable to modern readers not through their writings but through their lives. Biographers chronicle their doubtful or wrong turnings without necessarily understanding the human context of those 'errors' or appraising how the writings relate to, alter and adjust them.

Biography has begun to displace fiction in the marketplace yet, by the choice made from available facts, by ignorance of small detail - the weather on a crucial day, the subject's diet, what a concierge said - can be lesser fiction. When biography is driven by parti-pris or theory, or when criticism avails itself of fragments of biography to prove a point, the symbiosis is complete: the life feeds into criticism, criticism feeds back into the life; poems illustrate conclusions drawn from the interplay of facts and theories.

Laura (Riding) Jackson's work has long been obscured by the activities of Graves's biographers and hagio-graphers. Her attempts to put the record straight were unavailing. Few of those who took advantage of her assistance in their researches honoured her trust. It will be some time before her work - and the lineaments of her life, disencumbered of malicious legend - will emerge.

The magazine Chelsea devoted its 35th issue to selections from the work of Laura (Riding) Jackson. In the introduction she advised the reader: 'Do not look, in my writing, for explanations of my writing. Treat it as a life that is living life's debate … ' Many of the articles are followed by post-scripts in which the ideas expressed are applied, extended and deepened. Ideas have a life, not so much an application as an existence which becomes proven truth. So too the poems, which resist paraphrase, whose prosody is impeccable and yet unanalysable, have an existence, proven and enhanced in each rereading.

There is, everywhere in her work, a quest for the integrative innocence which makes it possible to perceive and work towards congruities of language, of perception, transcending the postures and prejudices of the day. She writes of the bien-pensant liberalism of the 'good' people 'with "compassionate", "human" and "intelligent" alternating with "good" in the jargon of the ethical piety of the time, as synonyms', how they fall into an 'easy religion of self-esteem. They believe that they believe, and look to themselves like people of belief, and the appearance is infectious'. One is reminded of Octavio Paz's poem in which, recalling his radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, he reflected: 'What we wanted we wanted without innocence.' Without innocence, without lived rather than postured belief, integration fails, the present tense and its truth are postponed for good.

In the editorial of P·N·R 78, which celebrated the work of Laura (Riding) Jackson, and in the supplement to that issue devoted to her, many of the concerns of her life and work were touched upon. The crucial challenge of her work was her 1938 rejection, not of her poems themselves, as Alan Clark reminds us, but of poetry as a language capable of approaching the truth she sought. In Chelsea 35 she gives a plain account of her decision: she rejected poetry because it was merely 'telling the story of the real story', it was not the real story she wanted to tell; its closed processes, the necessary 'authorial stance' of the poet, made for falsification in the very act of writing. 'Poetic speaking, with all the careful labour to give it spontaneity, cannot avoid being premeditatedly spontaneous in expression-quality. However good it is, it is a token performance. When I comprehended the inevitable leakage, in poetic activity, of the personal into the authorial - the categorically literary - I stopped, and reorganized my consciousness of what I had been doing.'

Her challenge is harsh and illuminating: the avoidance of literature which Sisson wrote of in relation to the work of William Barnes is here exemplified in an uncompromising fashion. The obituarists were right in suggesting that Laura (Riding) Jackson's work makes unusual demands on readers and requires a kind of attention rare in our time. It is an austere and intensely rewarding pleasure, in all its manifestations. For the present, she will continue to draw readers who can 'benignly treat my work and myself as one', and who know that in that work they possess a rare true treasure of this century.

This item is taken from PN Review 82, Volume 18 Number 2, November - December 1991.

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