Poetry News

Poetry Serves Itself: Andrea Rexilius on Laura (Riding) Jackson

By Harriet Staff


We were wondering when another great read about Laura (Riding) Jackson would come along. Just our luck, today at Coldfront is Andrea Rexilius's "Against the Commodity of the Poem (part 1)," wherein she discusses Jackson's critical work (often co-written with Robert Graves), her ideas of the self as a system of poetics, new relationships to the reader in early modernism, and more. Here's a smidgen:

To further explain her notion of this “self” as a system of poetics, she writes, “when this self has been isolated from all that is impression and impurity of contact in an individual, then a ‘thing,’ a work, occurs, it is discharged from the individual, it is self; not his self, but Self” (Anarchism, 6). Poetry then is transcendent of the individual who is writing the poem; art perhaps is not. Poetry is a process that reveals or recognizes a beginning, an origin that causes all humans to become defined by the commonality of awareness, of being, of selfhood. The border, the “degree in the consciousness beyond which the consciousness itself cannot go” is for Laura (Riding) Jackson the edge of our capacity to know ourselves. The goal of poetry is to reach this edge, to lean as far outside of the body as is possible without collapsing in on the self. Poetry is a telescope, or a microscope that focuses awareness of the body, and through the body focuses an awareness on self, not an individual self, but the selfness of being. Given this view of poetry, it is of little surprise that Laura (Riding) Jackson was greatly and continuously offended by notions of poetry as commodity, as game, or as “public flattery.” Her integrity as a writer lies in her extreme seriousness about the act of writing. It is for her alchemical, and timeless. It answers not to public opinion or to poetic movement or to one’s contemporaries. Poetry may not even answer to the poet herself. Thus, “Riding concluded that poetry is ‘perhaps the only human pursuit left still capable of developing anti-socially,’ that is, to serve only poetry’s intrinsic needs” (Adams, 38).

During her early career Laura (Riding) Jackson authored a series of critical texts that further explicate her take on the purpose of poetry and aid in her definition of the poem as “anti-social.” In A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), co-authored by Robert Graves, she / they write:

The quarrel now is between the reading public and the modernist poet over the definition of clearness. Both agree that perfect clearness is the end of poetry, but the reading public insists that no poetry is clear except what it can understand at a glance; the modernist poet insists that the clearness of which the poetic mind is capable demands thought and language of a far greater sensitiveness and complexity than the enlarged reading public will permit it to use. To remain true to his conception of what poetry is, he has therefore to run the risk of seeming obscure or freakish, of having no reading public; even of writing what the reading public refuses to call poetry, in order to be a poet (84).

During a period when poetic form is switching out of traditional rhyme and meter into free verse Jackson and Graves are aware that the “plain reader” may no longer know how to read poetry. The most important argument here is that it is the reader who must adapt to the poem, not the poem or the poet to the reader. Survey is known for its introduction of what is now called New Criticism or close reading. Jackson and Graves apply this method (for the first time) to poems by Cummings, Pound, Eliot and other well-known modernists in an attempt to reveal to the public how one goes about reading poetry that is not reigned in by traditional land-marks. They also make a distinction between modernist poetry that is actually doing something, that is working, and poetry that merely hides or poses as something else, as for instance, music or painting or mathematics or symbol. In addition, they argue against capitalism’s effect on modern writing where commerce, competition, and “conscientious imitation of the time-spirit” prevail over actual poetic discovery (158). Jackson and Graves believe that “All poetry that deserves to endure is at once old-fashioned and modernist” (70). It is a poetry that exists in two places at once, in the realm of Before and in the realm of Now. This last statement sounds like it could be in alliance with many other modernist authors and slogans; however, Laura (Riding) Jackson, at least, is more complicated than this.

We can't wait for part two, coming next week.

Originally Published: February 27th, 2014