Waggish

An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 2)

Lisa Samuels edited and wrote an extensive introduction for the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Laura Riding’s 1928 collection of essays and stories, Anarchism Is Not Enough. Lisa has also published three books of poetry, most recently The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books, 2008), as well as several chapbooks. She teaches at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Riding’s poetry reads to me as a far more open-ended questioning of language and meaning than her later critical writing, which can be didactically strict in its directed goal of redefining how language and meaning should work.

LS: In her poetry, Riding wants to redefine ‘how language and meaning should work’ but, because of the nature of language, she in fact (in my view) demonstrates a more open-ended ‘questioning of language and meaning’. Again, that’s in her poetry. In her early critical work and short stories (until 1939) I think she is more direct and directive about the lamentable limits of the human imagination in the face of what language is capable of – what it does do to us and what it can do to and for us.

How intentional was this open-endedness in her poetry?

LS: I think one can only usefully address this question by looking at specific poems and poetics passages of hers and tracing the balance of go-thou-and-do-likewise with watch-me-constellate-into-disappearance.

How do these methods manifest themselves in the stories of Progress of Stories?

LS: Her tone can be crisp in those stories, as you say; but her combinations of the fantastic, fairy tales, interrogating language as power, investigating what it means to draw and disassemble characters, challenging the reader to be aware of their desire for narrative and syntactic seduction, and so on, make for a situation, in my reading, of multiple possibilities (rather than precision) and messy genres (excess – I mean that in a good way).

How did these two opposing approaches resolve themselves after she gave up poetry around 1940 and refused to republish her poetry for 30 years?

LS: After 1940, with the changes in her personal and intellectual life (namely the intense identification she and Schuyler Jackson had with each other, & their encouragement of a kind of impatience-with-the-world and a monastic focus on certain ideas about the inner workings of language), Riding turned toward two prime impulses. One of these was rather socially angelic: she wanted to people to be their best selves with each other (we see this in the 1930s, too, but later it’s more constant and prescriptive), to realize that being is ongoingness, intense and constant communication using the best of our best selves, our most responsible and loving language attitudes. One sees this in The Telling and Some Categories of Broad Reference, especially. Her expression of this impulse are utopian and language-fixed, but there’s almost nothing silly nor unthinking about it, and it is aligned with plenty of theorizing one sees from legitimated Continental writers at the time and later on.

I think there’s ‘almost’ nothing silly about it because Riding is still so directive, so rhetorically self-unfolding, that even though she’s calling out the Other in tender terms, her manner of presenting the materials can make people feel she’s telling them what to do. And indeed, in her second prime impulse, brought to its apex in Rational Meaning, Riding (with her husband Schuyler) is in fact telling people what to do. She wants to install an attitude toward the nature of language that amounts to viewing meaning as innate – kind of like Plato’s Cratylus dialog redux, but this time the voice that represents the Rule of Use (akin to Hermogenes) is really not permitted utterance except as misguided.

I think both of these prime impulses are connected in the desire to connect, albeit on her own terms. Riding wants to get as close as possible to words, via human and textual conduits.

Certainly she comes to Plato’s view of banishing art from the republic; but I can’t help seeing everything she does as (at least also) art, because of (always) her methods and styles.

To be continued. The next installment will cover Riding’s working relationship with Schuyler Jackson and Samuels’ own poetry.

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