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

AMONG THOSE WRITERS to whom P·N·Review owes a substantial debt is Laura (Riding) Jackson. It is appropriate that we should celebrate her ninetieth birthday with a supplement which attests to the vitality and challenge of her work as a whole. I am grateful to Elizabeth Friedmann for her help in assembling this supplement, to Robert Nye for his contribution, but especially to Laura (Riding) Jackson herself for allowing us to publish so much material, including the full text of the only formal interview she has granted and a selection of her early poems.

Edwin Morgan first encouraged me to write to her well over a decade ago. She was then in her seventies and living, as she has done for many years, in Wabasso, Florida. This correspondence led to the republication by Carcanet of The Poems of Laura Riding and of her prose works A Progress of Stories, A Trojan Ending and Lives of Wives. In coming months the Selected Poems and the previously uncollected Early Poems will appear.

She has contributed substantial essays and letters to P·N·R and treated me to a considerable correspondence of a private character in which, issue by issue, she has appraised the contents and general direction of the magazine in a severe and generous spirit. As with most of the writers whose example has been crucial to me, I realize that the magazine has fallen far short of her expectations, yet she has kept with it even at times when health problems would have deterred a less constant friend.

The presence of Laura (Riding) Jackson is large, and likely to loom larger as the years pass. There are those of us with a committed admiration for her poems, not only for the way they speak but for what they say, and who still experience the exemplary shock of her 1938 renunciation of poetry for reasons clearly stated then, and developed in later essays. There are those of us who love her stories, novels and early critical writings, and who find the harsh hygiene of her later prose (from The Telling - that miraculously lucid book - onwards) a progressive challenge to what Ted Hughes called 'the chattering fever of approximations and compromise which is the life of expressive speech'. Despite the opacity of some of the later essays, which stems from her passion for precision, for a language purged of approximation, rhetorical resonance and uncontrolled nuance, and her asperity when critics and journalists misrepresent her life and work, her singularity is not eccentric. Writers as diverse as Graves, Empson, Auden, Hughes, Larkin and Ashbery (to name a few) have heard or partly heard her and recorded debts to her - even if she has not readily accepted their acknowledgement. Michael Roberts described her in 1938 as an 'original'. We are now in a position to appraise the coherence of that originality, its centrality to what might be our concerns, tracing it from the earliest critical essays and poems to the vast project Rational Meaning to which she and her late husband Schuyler B. Jackson devoted so many years of work.

The disciplines she practises, sometimes - the reader may feel - to excess, are the root disciplines of language as an instrument for discovering and expressing congruity, wholeness, universality, general truth. Against the anecdotal particularism of the age she can seem Augustan in her sense of language as having specific, fixable and definable values. She can seem Romantic in her pursuit of universals and congruities. But however one tries to categorize her, she escapes, standing outside our received and reductive habits of thought. This is in part because of the impersonality of her quest, the ways in which she serves her medium with strict self-denial, rejecting with salutary scorn our common notions of 'creativity', 'self-expression' and 'voice'. 'The articulation of reality, above the articulation of self,' she said in an essay of 1925, in a prose whose aphoristic clarity contrasts with the more attenuated, qualified and adverbial style of her later work. Her invisibility, the emancipation from subjectivism in her writing, is part of a wider emancipation - from the chains in which our century willingly binds itself: Marx, Freud, the -ologies and -isms that have catalysed and helped to market the works of lesser writers.

It is a savage irony that so much play has been made of her life - especially the years spent with Robert Graves - and that reviewers ignorant of her writing, indeed unable to read it because it is so alien to the higher gossip of literary journalism, pass judgement on what they take to be her character. For years now attention to the legends of Laura Riding's life have had a hectic currency at the expense of her work, at the expense of truth, and with incalculable human consequences for the writer. Anyone who has experienced the work of Laura (Riding) Jackson in its plenitude recognizes a largeness of spirit and a wholesomeness of purpose without obvious parallel this century. Gossip will subside, the record will be put straight, and this writer now in her ninetieth year will come to be seen for what she is: a truth-teller who extends our sense of language and its potential.

When she was 23, in an essay entitled 'A Prophecy or a Plea' and published in The Reviewer (Volume V, Number 2, April 1925) she declared her position with remarkable force. The essay contains the germ of much that was to follow. Especially pertinent is her characterization of the dominant spirit of the age, against which her whole endeavour has been gauged.

We have been blinded by life, so we turn our senses inward, against it; and the utterance of relief is made in pride, the cry of cowardice becomes the authentic act of art. The tradition of art, of poetry especially, as a catharsis has so thoroughly legitimized this process that it is almost impossible to attack it. It is not a question of proving another method more legitimate. There is no other method. For if the matter be examined more closely it will be seen that the quarrel must be made not with the way we write but with the way we live. For art is the way we live, while aesthetics, in divorcing art from life, sets the seal of approval on the philosophy of escape. We live life by avoiding it. Art then as the strategy of this philosophy is no more than an inversion, and, as an inversion, is barren. It is not, as it should be, the conduct of life itself, but merely an abnormality of conduct.

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

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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