Poetry News

The Literary Memoirs of Laura Riding Jackson

By Harriet Staff


We're grateful whenever literary scholars and historians attend to the work of a brilliant and overlooked poet, especially because such poets are often women. In an essay for Jacket2 on Laura (Riding) Jackson's literary memoirs, literary scholar and poet Becky Peterson notes that (Riding) Jackson has frequently been "villianized, marginalized, and ignored" and that "The Person I Am offers a valuable, personal defense of the author and her work":

Rather than a complaint, a correction, or an autobiography, this collection is more, as (Riding) Jackson explains, an aid to understanding. Both volumes will be useful to those seeking additional knowledge about (Riding) Jackson’s philosophy and point of view. (Riding) Jackson put together the first volume herself; the second volume, which consists of essays, short pieces, and correspondence, was put together by the editors. The editors selected the title, explaining that (Riding) Jackson considered others, including “Praeterita” and “Later-Life Commentaries.” The term “memoir” here is somewhat awkward, as (Riding) Jackson and her editors acknowledge. The text includes several points of interest which broaden our knowledge of (Riding) Jackson’s biography — including new information about her relationships with figures such as Robert Graves and Geoffrey Phibbs, her participation in the Fugitives poetry group, her life in Wabasso, Florida, and her personal thoughts on a range of other artists, from filmmaker Len Lye to Sylvia Plath — but these volumes do not take the form of a typical autobiographical narrative.

Peterson describes how (Riding) Jackson felt conflicted about the relationship between her almost religious belief in the work of literature and language and the "literary world," which she critiqued for being "ingrown, out of touch, and stifling":

(Riding) Jackson turns to the example of Robert Graves (with whom she had a working and romantic relationship) in order to illustrate her position and to distinguish herself and her writing from the selfish motives of the literary world. Much of the literary criticism and biography that (Riding) Jackson responds to in The Person I Am depict her as either subordinate to or smothering of Graves’s talent. She dismisses Graves’s intentions as self-interested and lacking seriousness, characterizing him as driven by “ambition to achieve importance in some field of activity” rather than committed to the sacrifices required of the truly devoted writer (1:210). In conveying her religious-like belief in language, (Riding) Jackson forces others to examine their commitment to writing and avoid distractions such as ambitious “self-worship” and literary-world “codes.” She questions the motives behind writing and the processes of criticism which can (unfairly) elevate or erase particular authors.

Nearly every poet at some point or another has experienced a similar frustration with literary worlds and communities. As Peterson points out, (Riding) Jackson's ideas about the relationships between writing, language and literary discourse "give new depth to her decision to renounce poetry and recharge debates about literary attention-getting."

Originally Published: February 19th, 2013