Looking for (Mrs) Laura (Riding) Jackson, the anti-social peoples poet, from Jamaica (Queens) to Woodruff Avenue (Brooklyn)
Andrea Rexilius’s excellent piece on Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Against the Commodity of the Poem,” published in Coldfront, makes me wonder how far or how little we have come over 40 years, in terms of the questions: what is the role of poetry and whom does it serve? Rexilius’s piece makes me wonder how poets used to be and perhaps still are segregated: who is the anti-social poet, who is the people’s poet? Who writes for the art, who writes for the audience, and how are these distinctions made?
I first absorbed Riding’s poetry—against all odds—in Jamaica, Queens, in the early 1970s, the moment her Selected Poems in Five Sets appeared: a first book of hers to come out since 1938, three years before she renounced the writing of poetry. Poetry as “craft” could not be true to its creed, Riding believed, the creed which “offer[ed] hope of a way of speaking beyond the ordinary.” For a young poet, I was more than willing to romanticize the reach of poetry into the cosmos and out of the Jamaica Ave. Union Hall Street Station at the Long Island Rail Road. I was more than open to transcending Self and speaking beyond the ordinary. It was the Age of Siddhartha.
But the reach of poetry always had its limits: a poet could only be a misunderstood, isolated creature. This was the existential pose young poets mimicked. Riding’s work offered that guise as well. It is in the first (prose) poem of hers I read: “Poet: A Lying Word”: “It is a false wall, a poet: it is a lying word. It is a wall that closes and does not.” Here was a poet who offered me even more of an island to escape to than rhymin’ Paul Simon, who told me he had his poetry to protect him. (“I am a rock / I am an island / I have my books / And my poetry to protect me,” Simon sang). It was comforting. Yet as Simon said “no” to John Donne’s “No Man is an Island,” Riding went further and said “no” to Simon’s privileged role for poetry on his island, which was appealing to me, a young poet caught between Long and Manhattan islands. Riding asked “what’s the point (yes, even) of poetry if the poet gets caught up in the mechanics of its own making and can’t truth-tell?”
Finally, there was the appearance of Riding’s book after so many years of her silence, with a preface in which she addressed her sudden withdrawal from poetry, as she asserted that “no poet before [her had] gone to the very breaking point.” Her dramatic articulation of this gesture made her work that much more captivating. It recalled affinities with Rimbaud’s escape from poetry into gunrunning and his “abandoning of the poet-role” (a parallel, I should say, Riding put to bed quickly). Not bad, I thought at the time, she’s badder than Rimbaud. Of course, no one else thought so, or if they did, it was not flattering (Williams called her “a prize bitch”).
I say I read Riding against all odds because of the prevailing attitude towards her work: she was accused of being difficult, abstract, insular (poetry qua poetry qua language), philosophical, formalist, theatrical. Her work was tonally in a wholly other “higher” register than the poetry of people who were taking it to the streets. She was heralded by a few; John Ashbery claimed she was one of three of his most vital influences—but denigrated as a snob by poets and teachers who declared themselves heirs—false heirs I found out later— to the so-called concrete, so-called clearly and colloquially delineated American vernacular of William Carlos Williams and the quotidian world of plums and chickens they inherited from him. One of these poets and teachers was David Ignatow, who won the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1977. According to a Poetry Foundation bio: “From Williams, Ignatow had learned to guard against “a romantic view of life. Against elevated language. Against trying to make a leap into something which didn’t exist.”
This is true. I remember no one leapt into the unknown with “elevated language” when I sat in his class in 1971 at York College (CUNY) by Prospect Cemetery, on the Jamaica Avenue “campus.” For Ignatow, Williams was the common man’s poet for whom poetry’s language was only real if it came out of the mouths of Polish mothers in “no ideas but in things.” Of course, the other Williams—the Williams none of his poet-descendants mentioned and whom I was left to discover on my own too many years later—was absent: the Williams who in fact did “elevate” his rhetoric and leapt into the linguistic imagination of the actual in poems like “Asphodel” or ‘The Descent” or in writing like Kora in Hell (Pound went on to castigate the latter, calling it “incoherent” and “un-American”).
Today, the young may not be not aware that the lines were clearly drawn back then: I was implicitly told to choose a direction (I came to learn only much later that the branches of Modernism could not be extended in only two directions): towards an American poetry prized because it was “concrete,” of and for the people, written in the American vernacular grain—this perspective welcomed populist appropriations of Whitman and Sandburg as well as facile, reductive readings of the Beats and the conversational offhandedness of some of the NY School (e.g. O’Hara)—against an American poetry that was “un-American,” informed by Continental Europe, rejected because it was seen as abstract and aestheticized, perhaps viewed as throw-back to the highly rhetorical overly academicized formalism which, in Williams’s take on Eliot, “returned us to the classroom.” Its tone was not local or of the streets or of the Beats. It certainly was not Riding’s. Don Share, in an astute piece on hearing a recording of Riding from 1972, says her voice stood out and “sound[ed] a bit, to the contemporary listener, like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers film, but don’t let that fool you. There was a time when poets (and others) were schooled in elocution and rhetoric as well as the classics, and this produced a precious speaking style that is now extinct.” Well, it was also extinct when I was growing up. In my working class neighborhood, to admit to reading poetry was a joke. To admit to reading Margaret Dumont’s clone was, well: go see “Duck Soup” if you want a good laugh. Ironically, given Riding’s Polish-Jewish émigré father, Nathan Reichenthal, she could only have adopted Dumont’s voice out of elocution lessons. Poetry, as such, offered linguistic refuge, “where [Riding believed] the fear of speaking in strange ways could be left behind.” If poetry became such a fantasy island, one can better understand her rejection of it as artifice which compromised truth-telling. In her (biographical) case, it was the truth of her “real voice,” her Brooklyn background, as she substituted for it the exaggerated poetic voice, an escape from Polish-Jewish Brooklynese. Brooklyn, of course, was where Ignatow—née Ignatowsky—was born, son of Max, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Between these choices, I was told to find “my real voice.”
Few remember that Ignatow’s gritty, streetwise writer’s view of urban NYC did not differ much from the view out of the middle west: call it middlebrow realism, unadorned, flat, direct statement. This view comprised the attitudes and prohibitions in some quarters of the poetry world which, sans poetic devices and in the name of the desire for clarity to reach the average Joe, were used to obscure and discredit, if not downright censor what I had the chance to read. Ignatow, self-proclaimed heir to Whitman, Sandburg, Williams, wanted me to “get the gasworks”—the title of his most famous poem—to get “America, boy.” He was in no way going to get where Riding or this boy—me—were coming from. “Stay away from that abstract shit,” he told me (“and stay away from Ashbery, too”). And, as Ignatow tried to keep me from her elevated language, the now demolished “El” train tracked its way high above 150th Street and Jamaica Avenue and within view of mostly low-income first generation York College students, who peered out the windows: all I could see, every 10 minutes or so, were the muted sounds Ignatow was mouthing as the trains roared by.
Today, I ask: what were the reasons behind the ultimatum: go down real and “get the gasworks” and so “get America, boy” or get out of the country with that cosmopolitan voice of yours and go write poetry with “your head in the clouds,” as my German-Jewish mother used to disparagingly quip, citing some Schiller quatrain about the impracticality (and thus unreality) of poetic speech? And why were two Jewish children of immigrants in Brooklyn making me—a Jewish immigrant in Queens—choose between poetic voices? How and why was the distinction even made between an audience who wanted it real and grounded but in the vernacular, so to speak, and an audience who wanted poetry to be a transcendent practice in its truth-telling, albeit in a different, “elevated and unreal” musical register? Were not keeping it real and truth-telling pitched to the same order, no matter the frequency (“I must be myself, obedient to the orders of the poem, under the ridicule,” Robert Duncan once said)? And did not the New York Times, when Ignatow died, print words which might have endeared him to Riding’s dismissal of poetry as “craft-individualism” in the name of truth-telling, citing Ignatow’s “emphasis on meaning rather than the artifice of language?” Well, not really, but still:
“An ordinary man is a message to the world,” Mr. Ignatow once wrote. The words defined the essence of his poetry, his subject matter of ordinary life and his emphasis on meaning rather than the artifice of language.
Did not both Ignatow and Riding realize that poetic language for the child of an immigrant was always a put-on, an erasure of origins, no matter the tone? I remember the American poet Charles Reznikoff, who heard and spoke a Yiddish learned from his immigrant parents, once saying in a 1974 interview with Reinhold Schiffer:
American common speech, well, it hasn’t got to me, it hasn’t got, say, the music that Irish speech has, and English, but I try to supply it …. I don’t find anything in American speech as such, but of course my medium is English. My medium is English, not that I chose it but, let me say [laughs], God chose it for me, and that’s the speech I know, somewhat.
(Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet, National Poetry Foundation, 1984)
For Ignatow, to write what critics called deceptively simple, “natural” and “seemingly effortless” poems out of ordinary speech, he had to make an effort to reject traces of his father’s Russian accent in order to talk that American talk; for Riding, to leave behind her father’s way of speaking, she had to stage a poetry which was already the sounding of a second, affected poetic language within an America which does not count poetry among its ordinary facts, “where the fear of speaking in strange ways could be left behind … a way of speaking differently from the untidy speaking ways of ordinary talk.” The irony was that both poets had to voice a poetry that was somewhat unnatural and a betrayal of origins, even as both were intimately concerned with the integrity of their practices.
“There was an ultimate of perfect truth to reach, and poetry was the way,” Riding went on to say in her preface to Selected Poems in Five Sets, but it could not go this way precisely because of the aesthetic demands of its ritualistic craft, “the verbal rituals which court sensuousity as if it were the judge of truth.” These betrayed the truth-telling “religious aspects” of poetic activity. She named this disappointment morally, theologically:
Never before has there been so great a variety of individual poetic styles, and so much poverty of thematic content of the kind the word “poetry,” in the entire virtue of its meaning, signifies—religious (to use the word again) in magnitude of scope and purity of interest-value. The total display crackles with craft-individualism, but there is no sparkling, no brilliance: all is suffused with a light of drab poetic secularity.
(Preface, Selected Poems in Five Sets)
The vocabulary Riding uses—“virtue,” “religious,” “secularity”—suggests an astonishing parallel with poets’ pursuits in the Arab world. In an interview about his groundbreaking book, Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry, a text comprised of ethnographic narratives based on interviews with poets in the Arab world, Khaled Furani says: “I also grapple with the place of secularism in poets’ pursuits. I learned from my teacher, Talal Asad, to question secularism’s claims to self-sufficiency, as though the life forms it makes possible are all there is or all that is natural and legitimate.” Riding, by displaying how poetry disappoints when “all is suffused with a light of drab poetic secularity,” is also questioning craft-individualism’s “claim to self-sufficiency: is that all there is, she asks, poets as Santa’s helpers tinkering with their toy-poems and constantly talking about “process” as the “natural and legitimate” concern of the poet?” Where’s “the thematic content of the kind the word ‘poetry’ in the entire virtue of its meaning, signifies—religious … in magnitude of scope and purity of interest-value?” Where is what she called for in her Collected Poems of 1938: “an uncovering of truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth?”
Today, I wonder if Riding’s lament did not foreshadow the appearance of mecca for 21st century writers: the University M.F.A. program and the creative writing workshops ensconced within it: young writers sweating process and craft and individual poetic voice and style at the expense of “an uncovering of truth so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth?” What is timeless about the ethos of these workshops is the litany of imperatives I heard when I first encountered the resistance to Riding’s “abstract” work in 1971: focus on the concrete; find your true voice through your craft (“craft-individualism”); be direct; visualize particular not general truth(s); don’t intellectualize your subject or over-think the poem (or story), in fact—why even think. Don’t let ideas guide you (a misreading of “no ideas but in things”). In A Survey of Modernist Poetry, Riding and Robert Graves named the coming workshop psychology: “It must be admitted that excessive interest in the mere technique of the poem can become morbid both in the poet and the reader, like the composing and solving of cross-word puzzles.”
Riding’s judgment that craft was “suffused with a light drab of poetic secularity” suggested that it had replaced the religious truth telling activity of poetry. I wonder if she could have envisioned what would be “systematically going on” when teacher-poets came to institutionalize “craft-individualism” within the M.F.A. orbit. As Eric Bennett has recently written in “How Iowa Flattened Literature”:
Within today’s M.F.A. culture, the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is bring to the table a certain ambitiousness of preconception. All the handbooks say so. “If your central motive as a writer is to put across ideas,” the writer Steve Almond says, “write an essay.” The novelist and critic Stephen Koch warns that writers should not be too intellectual. “The intellect can understand a story—but only the imagination can tell it. Always prefer the concrete to the abstract. At this stage it is better to see the story, to hear and to feel it, than to think it.”
If one can even imagine Riding sitting in a workshop and bringing to the table “a certain ambitiousness of preconception,” one can also speculate how swiftly it would be swept under the rug. As Ammiel Alcalay has written in his seminal book, A little history—exploring in part the correspondences between politics, cultural space, and the uses of poetry in post-World War II America—the de-contextualizing of politics from theory in the American academy, as well as the diminished intellectual role writers could play in that academy, can be seen in how they have been isolated to “the creative department, the non-thinking department.” In an interview I conducted with Alcalay in his book of poetry, from the warring factions, he says:
The turning away from a grounded poetics and the backlash against its concerns in much of what is now in vogue seem to me a great loss of breadth and scope, a willingness to not only settle for less but to become domesticated and so willingly participate in, and accept, structures of power. ... We have pretty much come to the point of removing poetry from knowledge, and sticking it in the creative writing department.
To remove “poetry from knowledge”—where poetry is historically understood as a repository of knowledge for different cultures—and “sticking it in the creative writing department” corresponds to Riding’s critique of poets who have focused heavily on craft-making and courted “verbal sensuousity at the expense of ‘truth-telling.’” For writers to accept the boundaries of the so-called “creative departments,” Alcalay warns, is to become “domesticated and so willingly participate in, and accept, structures of power [e.g. the university]” precisely because all they are asked to do is “craft,” like graffiti artists on parole approvingly given crayons marked “state property.”
Riding believed poetry had to become anti-social, not commodified, answering to itself, in order to be faithful to its calling: truth-telling. Poetry, she wrote in Anarchism is Not Enough, “is what happens when the baby crawls off the altar and is ‘Resolv’d to be a very contrary fellow’—resolved not to pretend, learn to talk or versify.” In addition, it should not pretend to the clearness demanded by the public. Riding and Robert Graves solidified this view in A Survey of Modernist Poetry:
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.
How beautifully and strangely do Riding’s words here correspond with the concerns of poets writing thousands of miles and future years away, in the contemporary Arab world: poets who are intimately concerned with the relationship(s) between poet and audience, between clarity and obscurity. In Furani’s book, the poet Ahmad Dabour distinguishes the back and forth between a poet’s desires to stretch his art and still be responsible to the demands of an audience:
There is a thorny, challenging and exciting relation with the audience. A hypocrite and liar is he who says he does not care for audience. In our countries, where we speak one language and write another, the price of pleasing the audience is costly. The poet has to find his precise equation as if he were walking on glass, so he could keep the art and at the same time reach the widest audience. But if you are plagued with a cause, like many of us Palestinian poets, it becomes harder because the salafi (past-ist) taste is dominant and asks for the common thing. They are asking Mahmoud Darwish to write what he wrote 30 years ago.
For Riding, unlike for Dahbour, the poet, in order “to remain true to his conception of what poetry is,” need not be concerned with the public not “getting” where the poet is taking it. This is true if the poem is a self-enclosed aesthetic experience—poetry qua poetry—which has no social role. However, as Luke Carson remarks, another (ethical) case could be made from some of Riding’s prose which suggests she wanted poetry to go outward, outside the poet’s body, to the needs of an audience, to “the conduct of life itself”:
Nonetheless, that the aesthetic experience of self-disclosure bears an ethical value as well is recognized by (Riding) Jackson in an early essay on the vocation of the poet …: she declares her concern to be above all “the conduct of life itself”
(“Your Majesty's Self Is But a Ceremony”: (Laura (Riding) Jackson, Emerson, and the Conduct of Life, Texas Studies in Literature and Language Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 2010)
Or as she wrote in The Telling: “We do not stop in our bodies, but outstrip them. We are more than our bodies, and can remember what was before them” (Telling, 27). This is far from her desire for a poetry answering only to itself. Even Ignatow would agree: “In short, I am a participant in a worldly epic, if significance can be found in living and dying, together with everything and everyone else. I bow to my higher self.” (Contemporary Authors)
Today, I am still drawn to the Riding of my youth: her desire for poetic outsider-ness. “Poetry,” she wrote, “answers not to public opinion or to poetic movement or to one’s contemporaries,” which calls me with empathy to Zukofsky’s claim that poetry does not have one face one day to lose face on another.” Yet as I get older I wonder if an outsider-ness like this can also express itself from the inside: that is, from the inside of popular resistance movements, performed through a poetry which has both an eye to itself and to something larger than itself. Is there a way for these seemingly opposite objectives for poetry to co-exist: poetry as anti-social—answering to no one but itself—and poetry as an experience where self is abandoned to Self and answers to the ONE of ourselves, something that sounds “religious … in magnitude of scope and purity of interest-value,” like the definition of Islam, “self-surrender.” As Rexilius writes: Laura (Riding) Jackson’s poetic risk is that in order to create actual poetry she must loose for a time the sense of where she ends and others begin.” How close is this to a poetics of non-self, or what Sufis term as “fanaa”—that is, annihilation of one’s self in the One, the beloved? Rexilius further states: “When the self is anonymous, [Riding] suggests [in “Disclaimer of the Person”], rather than having less responsibility for the moral value of what one is saying, one has more. When ‘I am not I,’ I am myself and I am beyond myself.” Rexilius realizes the echoes here with Whitman’s Song of Myself: “In [Riding’s “Disclaimer of the Person”] in particular I read Whitman. This poem is both a “song of myself” and a vision not unlike The Sleepers’ democratic notion of self as universal.” But the echoes sound in even deeper chambers in time and space, to another Whitman poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” to Charles Olson’s reading of that poem, and, finally, to what Kai Krienke calls “the revolutionary potential of language” found in the poet of the Algerian Revolution, Jean Sénac.
In The Telling, Riding recollects how the one of “myself” and ourselves cohabit in the telling of story:
In every human being there is secreted a memory of a before-oneself; and, if one opens the memory, and the memory, and the mind is enlarged with it, one knows a time which might be now, by one’s feelings of being somehow of it … And, returning from the memory, our minds are nearly our mind; and the One of ourselves we nearly know better than ourselves.
And this telling of “a before oneself,” this telling of a living story in order to know “the one of Ourselves,” can be heard in these lines from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky,
so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one
of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and
the bright flow, I was refresh’d...
In an unpublished talk called “The Mytho,” Jeff Gardiner writes of Whitman’s poem and its impact on Charles Olson:The “desire to experience” becomes the pervasive desire in [Olson’s] later work and life. And he couples experiencing with telling. Olson insists that the crucial characteristic of telling is that it is to re-enact, to make present, and to experience. ... Perhaps the finest example of this occurred … in a reading Olson gave of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
The correspondence between Gardiner’s take on Olson’s (reading of) Whitman and Rexilius’s take on Riding is eerie: “The ‘truth’ [both poets] speak of is not discovered (as an object), it is experienced (as an encounter).” (Rexilius) “Charles Boer,” Gardiner writes, “one of Olson’s students in Buffalo, relates the story of Olson reading this poem to his class in Buffalo: ‘It was as if you became Walt Whitman. This was his voice. ... Olson and Whitman were one. We were all suddenly one.’” (Boer, 54)
Here are Whitman, Olson, Riding, all suddenly one in their intention for the poem to be experienced in “the telling of [the] crossing,” of a living story, “returning from the memory … and the One of ourselves we nearly know better than ourselves.” The Riding who would not socialize (i.e. commodify) the poem reaches for another way of saying. This way is implicitly pointed to in the poet-role she abandoned, and it is the paradox that this poet leaves us with: on the one hand, the Modernist poet is always “ahead” of her conservative audience, which:depends on the poet to give it a second sense of the universe through language. Because this language has been accepted ready made by ‘the rest of mankind’ without understanding the reasons for it, it becomes by ‘progress,’ stereotyped and loses its meaning; and the poet is called upon again to remind people what the universe really looks and feels like, that is, what language means ... he must use language in a fresh way or even ... invent new language.
(Laura Riding and Robert Graves, 94)
The similarities between Riding’s comments here—where the poet is perceived as progressive and the audience as conservative—and the words of some of the Arab poets interviewed in Furani’s book are uncanny. Ahmad Dahbour, according to Furani, suggests a “social space in which he [Dahbour] has located the poet as a progressive force pulled backward by a conservative public. Dahbour is not above them … but ahead of them.”
On the other hand—and this is the paradox Riding came to after she renounced poetry—she realized poets could learn that the public, too, were gifted with the powers of language, that the poets were not the exclusive “inside” bearers of “linguistic expression.”I have learned ... that poets, to be poets, must function as if
they were people who were on the inside track of linguistic
expression, people endowed with the highest language-
powers; that, in functioning so, they not only block the dis
covery that everyone is on this inside track, but confuse
themselves and others as to the value of their linguistic perf
(“Introduction for a Broadcast,” p. 4-5, my italics)
To broach the gap between the poet who is on “the inside track of linguistic expression” and everyone else who could be on this track is to discover for oneself the double meaning in Mallarmé’s task for the poet: “to give a pure sense or meaning to the words of the tribe.” I recently discovered this for myself when I read Kai Krienke’s translation of and commentary on Jean Sénac, a poet of the Algerian revolution, protégé of Camus until they parted in their views over the Algerian war against French colonialism (1954 – 62). I learned that Mallarmé’s phrase cuts both ways, and in this cutting opens a possible vision of a poetry which can answer to itself and to something/someone outside of itself. Read one way, the phrase points to the progressive poet ahead of her conservative audience, purifying the dross, turning so-called “primitive” dialects into “civilized” languages, where “the poet,” in Riding’s words, “is called upon again to remind people what the universe really looks and feels like, that is, what language means ... [so that] he must use language in a fresh way or even ... invent new language.” Read another way, Mallarmé’s line asks the poet to listen to the knowing audience—it is the people who want the poet to give himself up and source their language to recover poetry’s ancient roots and to give it contemporary meaning through his eyes. The people may have something to teach him if he, in Riding’s task for the poet, does not “block the discovery that everyone is on this inside track” of linguistic expression, when poetry can be “written by all,” be openly resistant to commodification and still answer to its own needs to stretch the art, to invent a new language. Here is Jean Sénac, translated by Krienke, from his manifesto The Sun under the Weapons:Resistance and poetry appear as a single blade where man relentlessly sharpens his dignity. Because poetry is conceived as dynamic, because it is “written by all,” an “ignition key” with which the community moves and exalts itself, it is, in its fury, as in its serene transparency, in its mysteries as in its shamelessness, openly resistant. As long as the individual is hindered in his claim of total freedom, poetry will guard the outposts and brandish the torches. And Mallarmé himself affirmed our allegiance to the world of blue and lava when we assigned to us this rallying cry: ”Give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe.” (Sénac 9)
The rallying cry here, given the context of the revolution, may in fact be the chants and songs of the Algerian tribes. The poet can represent their ultimate outsiderness (Riding’s anti-social entity), guarding the outposts of freedom, at the same time as the poet and her poetry takes in something beyond herself.
Few imagine the correspondences between Riding’s and Sénac’s work, primarily because of the categories developed around each of them: the elitist, anti-social poet pitted against the poet of the people—the revolutionary poet. But what they both understood was “the revolutionary potential for language” which could stay true to the poet’s need to embrace and re-invent what came to it from the outside. About Sénac, Krienke writes:In the context of current events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Turkey, it is worth noting the silence of a giant North-African neighbor that fought one of the most brutal and symbolic wars against colonial oppression, from 1954 – 1962. [Senac’s] The Sun Under the Weapons is a clear example of the revolutionary potential of language and the role it can have in voicing a common cause. (Warscapes)
Krienke extends the comparison between Sénac and Riding:Sénac sees the language as emanating from the people as the source of politics, meaning deep and rooted aspirations that do not yet have language. “Giving language” in terms of the “words of the tribe” is not putting one’s self in place of the people as voice, but putting the people [the Algerians] in one’s self or Self as Laura Riding would say …. and this was not, for Sénac, a rhetorical exercise. His body was quite concretely with the people, and not just in terms of his homosexuality but the physical closeness to the popular voice he gave to. It is not the reaching for the audience but for the possibility to be reached, touched by the audience through poetry.
(e-mail correspondence with author)
Can we put Sénac’s poetic perspective next to Riding’s and find the correspondences or the radical middle ground where not only poetry’s difficult clarity can serve multiple purposes at the same time, but where “the revolutionary potential of language” comes from both the poet and the people in relation to each other? Can the poet occupy this ground and be “touched by the audience through poetry?” (Krienke) Can his poetry answer to itself at the same time as the poet abandons himself to Self (Islam-“self-surrender”), becoming “a self conscious of ourselves,” as Riding wrote in The Telling?
In 1971, in Jamaica, as someone for whom English was not a first language, I was looking for myself—“my voice”—in poetry. I found Laura Riding, but only the voice of the mannered, non-American “English” Riding; meaning, Robert Graves’ wife, the ex-pat who had lived in England and Mallorca, not the American poet from Brooklyn who lived out her life in Wabasso, Florida. Poetry, I thought and Riding concurred, was “where the fear of speaking in strange [immigrant?] ways could be left behind.” I did not know I could have left Queens to find traces of Laura’s life a borough away: in 1928, a Jew without money de-classed as one of the inferior races at the time, attending Bed Stuy’s own Brooklyn Girls High School, which provided her with “an education in sensibility,” according to Deborah Baker. In 1971, she was often perceived as Williams’s “prize bitch,” among the snobs who ditched poetry because it turned from a humanity into an art. How dare she? I was drawn to her arrogant, airy dare—there was a strange integrity to it.
David Ignatow was not so drawn. The man who was proud of just barely graduating high school, the working man’s poet from Brooklyn who told me to stay from Riding’s aloof, abstract, intellectual “manner,” just wanted me to keep poetry real. Riding, Ignatow: each identity framed for me as a distinct voice writing in a particular poetic register, never to co-exist in this America: the abstract versus the concrete, the poet’s poet against the people’s poet, the obscure versus the clear.
Today, I can question these false distinctions because I see two poets from immigrant families in Brooklyn who had to adopt a way of speaking to get nearer to truth-telling, telling it straight (even if obliquely), to desperately want the people to get it no matter the registers in which the poets wrote. The poet’s poet, the people’s poet—why choose? Would LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka want us to choose between the young African-American (Clay) in his play, Dutchman, who in Scene I artfully, privately veils or codes his attacks on Lula (an archetype of liberal White America), or would he would have us settle for the Clay who speaks out in his monologue at the end of Scene I, who does not channel his truth-telling through music, who abandons Charlie Parker’s sax at the feet of the club’s bouncer:
not a note of
music if he
Street and killed the
Today, I wonder who is the anti-social people’s poet? Is she the same one writing for the art and for the audience? How can poets give poetry flesh, geography, and political import, so that they stretch the language and be true to its origins in the people, in their cultures?
Today, I wonder: What are the links between Riding’s critique of poetry as an insider’s game, a professionalized class distributing poetry to a silent laity”—and Sénac’s critique of “the public authorities” who, by “encouraging conformity (pseudo-orientalism, pseudo school of Paris, pseudo school of Algiers) and a false avant-garde, have once more proved that all true art is dangerous, because it is fundamentally revolutionary and dynamic, and because it is connected to the live roots of the country.”
Today, I wonder: how can the poet and poetry be singular in its integrity, answerable to everyone and no one?
In what American and un-American poetic registers can I hear again and therefore re-invent these poetic identities which were often prematurely framed for me: where I can hear echoes of Brooklyn’s own David Ignatow, one of Whitman’s space-time-travelers “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” by Prospect Park near Woodruff Avenue’s own Laura Reichenthal, daughter of Nathan, Polish-Jewish émigré, her last name changed to Riding and then transformed again by marriage to (Riding) Jackson, grapefruit farmer from Wabasso (Ossabaw spelled backwards, from the Guale (Wally) Indian word in the Muskogean or Creek language that means, literally, “yaupon holly bushes place.”), Florida.
Where can I find Mrs. Laura (Riding) Jackson who, like Walt Whitman, surrenders self to Self in order to become America’s first 20th-century ex-pat Sufi poet from the Boroughs?
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Benjamin Hollander's latest book is In The House-American (Clockroot Books)