Laura Riding, a name long obscure, has in the last few years made a number of significant reappearances. Vassiliki Kolocotroni's Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (1998), a successor to the classic Backgrounds of Modern Literature, offers excerpts of A Survey of Modernist Poetry, the barbed, astute study Riding coauthored with Robert Graves. Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry, published in 2001, includes three of Riding's poems, where the old Norton standard Modern Poetry had none. In the same year the University of California Press brought out a scholarly edition of Riding's Anarchism Is Not Enough, and Persea Books reissued The Poems of Laura Riding after it had been out of print for several years. A decade earlier Hugh Kenner had expressed the hope that Barbara Adams's study The Enemy Self would "launch an avalanche of critical attention" to Riding's work. (1) It did not, and even in light of the republications of the last few years the prospects for Riding's integration into the history and study of modernist literature remain uncertain. (2)
In 1979 Joyce Piell Wexler's Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth laid the groundwork for academic study of Riding; Adams's study, published in 1990, showed how much foundational work had still been left to do. Approaching Riding's vast and virtually unexplored oeuvre, Wexler and Adams identified its prominent features, charted lines of internal development, and laid out close readings of numerous individual poems. Their arguments for the literary-historical importance of Riding's work, however, emerged ultimately indistinct. The energy of both books is divided mainly between biographical reconstruction and exegetical labors that, however necessary, tend to keep the reader revolving in the orb of Riding's idiosyncratic poetics and idees fixes.
More sustained attempts to understand Riding's work historically have come more recently, notably from Jerome McGann, Lisa Samuels, and Jeanne Heuving. Heuving considers Riding's resolve to forge a new poetics in relation to comparable undertakings by Eliot and the New Critics; she also finds in Riding's poetry specifically feminist "antiholistic and anti-mirroring" principles and practices and links her, on these grounds, to Gertrude Stein and the early Marianne Moore. (3) McGann understands Riding's poetry as "a continuation of modernism's constructivist line (Pound, Williams, Stein, Oppen, Zukofsky), which emphasized the word-as-such," and thus also as a precursor of the experimental poetry of the last decades of the century (Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and others). (4) In passing, however, he distinguishes her poetry from her critical and theoretical writings, which, he indicates, align her with a different strain of modernism marked out by "Yeats, Pound [again], Stein [again], and Eliot" and characterized by "polemical and philosophical commitments" of the sort "largely forsworn by the next generation of poets" (134). In the delicate term commitments McGann appears to include everything from Yeats's cosmology to Pound's economic theories--it is a kind of shorthand for modernist system building in all its manifestations. The implication that this is at odds with her poetic practice is not pursued.
In the introduction to her 2001 edition of Anarchism Is Not Enough, Samuels positions Riding as distinctly opposed to theoretical commitments. The protean Pound is again a point of reference (this time figuring as the public pedagogue of ABC of Reading and Guide to Kulchur), and the Poundian legacy Samuels identifies is a kind of writing that she proposes we call "Other Criticism": a fearlessly self-entitled nontradition that "insists on eclectic and subjective processes," exemplified by works from William Carlos Williams's Embodiment of Knowledge to those of Bataille, Olson, Zukofsky, and, more recently, Angela Carter, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe. "All are self-conscious, at times quasimystical about literary commentary, and all believe that attentive individuals (not just credentialed specialists) have the right to address literary and cultural experience." (5)
Samuels offers a compelling analysis of how some of Anarchism's most extreme pronouncements are a way of claiming poetry for the larger project of resistance to commodification. She interprets Riding's declarations that poetry is "designed waste"--"idle, sterile, narrow, destroying"--as an attempt to "rescue poetry from its supposed irrelevance" by defying the "Western preoccupation with utility" (xxii-xxiii). Anarchism, however, marks only one stage in the development of Riding's poetics; considered in isolation, it can produce a skewed image of both the character of her thought and its connection to modernism. But Samuels's characterization of Other Criticism, which defiantly reclaims from "specialists" a "right" to speak, touches on the condition that can teach us most, I believe, about Riding and her connection to modernism. "Attentive individuals," of course, were never formally deprived of any such right, but one of the forces that produced modernism was the increasingly exercised right of other individuals to pay no attention.
The concept of modernism grows less coherent by the year; recent scholarship on the aesthetic practices of the first four decades of the twentieth century has left few of the old definitions intact. Riding's career, however, dramatically exemplifies one of the features that still define this troublesome but hardly dispensable concept. Some of the most diverse modernist practices are linked by a common recognition that the status of artistic and literary endeavor had been thrown into question. They respond to a pressure not only to interrogate the assumptions and conventions of their art but to justify its continuation in any form: to formulate a persuasive claim to relevance for a market of culture consumers with so much else to instruct, delight, and otherwise distract it. (6) This pressure arose at least in part from the difficulty of making creative work financially viable. But writers reflected ruefully not only on departed eras of enlightened patronage but on eras that were less enamored of the empirical model of knowledge and in which literature and the arts commanded greater cultural authority. (7)
Modernist writers found various ways of staking their claims to cultural authority. While most poets felt compelled to formulate statements about the value of poetry, few insisted that its value had to be truth-value. They were more inclined to question the coherence of the concept of truth than to try to appropriate for poetry the value that adhered to it. Williams, for instance, claimed for poetry the value of "knowledge" and trivialized the knowledge claims of other forms of inquiry. "The acquirement and possession of knowledge has an inhuman phase," he declared. "It is called Science or Philosophy." (8) But his claim for the knowledge value of poetry was advanced within a theory of language that apparently disposed of the conception of truth as such, a theory that Gerald L. Bruns once helpfully defined as "Orphic." The idea is that "poetic speech" not only signifies the world but is "the ground of all signification--an expressive movement which 'objectifies' the world ... which establishes the world within the horizon of human knowing and so makes signification possible." (9) Thus Williams claims that "the value of the imagination to the writer consists in its ability to make words," because "when we name it, life exists." (10) No less retiring than Williams in his claims for the power and relevance of poetry, Wallace Stevens counseled nonetheless that "we have been a little insane about the truth. We have had an obsession"; he saw the value of poetry in its construction of hypothetical but efficacious "supreme fictions." (11)
Riding is distinguished by her insistence on defining the value of poetry as truth-value. Compared to Williams and Stevens, she may seem to have adopted a philosophically backward stance, but she was not altogether misguided. (12) After all, she was confronting not a society that had, on cue from Nietzsche or William James, blithely disposed of the concept of truth as the accurate account of the real, but one that indubitably continued to honor a particular conception--the scientific--of what constitutes an accurate account. In light of the intellectual prestige of science, only truth-value could secure for poetry the authority Riding wanted for it. Any other formulation of its value would, she felt, render it precariously subservient, merely "expressive," or ornamental.
Riding's apparently eccentric preoccupation with truth is a product of the same cultural crucible that brought forth the other aesthetic singularities of her age. Heuving does make this connection. "In an age of science and specialization," she writes, "[Riding] shared with Eliot and the New Critics the attempt to formulate a poetry that would have legitimacy as an important form of knowledge" (201). The claim is that these writers undertook to "legitimate" poetry by asserting that it constitutes--or communicates?--"an important form of knowledge." But is this to assume that we have, or that Riding, Eliot, or the New Critics had, a taxonomy of knowledge forms? And within that taxonomy a hierarchy? (Are there forms of knowledge that are, in relation to others, unimportant?)
Heuving provokes these questions, but she does not pursue them. She briefly indicates Riding's difference from the mandarins thus: "Whereas Eliot and the New Critics sought to secure poetry's importance by asserting a separate realm for it, [Riding] eschewed what she saw as a professionalization and aestheticization of art" (201). It is not clear exactly what is attributed to Eliot and Co. (What is the nature of the "separate realm" they defined? What sort of knowledge did they claim as its provenance?) But the more immediate question is how Heuving defines Riding's alternative strategy. Here, however, she falls back on the brambles of Riding's own vocabulary: "[Riding] thought that what the age needed was for poetry to become more itself: 'thought in its final condition of truth,' urging a poetry in which an 'unreal self' 'by taking the universe apart will have reintegrated it' with her own 'vitality'" (201). Readers who manage to follow this line of the argument will find that Riding's alternative does not appear significantly different from the "separate realm" attributed to the New Critics. Riding, Heuving explains, "postulated through her concept of an 'unreal self,' an entity apart from [social] orders" (195), and she quotes Riding's statement that "the 'unreal self is to me poetry'" (196). Heuving would like to dissociate Riding from defensive isolationism, but it is not clear that she succeeds.