THE ENEMY SELF: POETRY & CRITICISM OF LAURA RIDING by BARBARA ADAMSJOE LECLERC Reviews
The Enemy Self: Poetry & Criticism of Laura Riding by Barbara Adams
(UMI Research Press, 1990)
The Poet in No One’s Pocket
Bob Milby introduced me to Barbara Adams in early Spring of this year.
Dr. Adams and I ( Doctor Not) were among the participants in an open mike reading at the Florida (Orange County, New York) Public Library.
I was enthusiastic about Prof Barbara’s poems. Quite subtle, nuanced, craft-wise (SNC).
Note: “Open Mike” is NOT SNC-centric. Mike likes Obvious, Loud, and Wis _ _ _ (OLW).
But, never mind Mike. Let’s get back to Doc B.
After a minute or so of colloquy, I was whoa-wowed to learn that Barbara A. Ph.D. did 18 years teaching at Manhattan’s Pace U (a few blocks away from where I tenementented 1970-1990).
You see, meta-mysterious coincidence was not limited to mere geographical proximity. No, in addition to the nearness, there were the scholarly and the not so scholarly minds working in unbeknownst tandem.
How so? Dr. Barb was writing about Laura Riding. LeClerc was holed up in his Vandam Street flop reading a blue and brown bound paperback of Riding’s writings.
So, about 20 years later, I meet B. Adams at a little Hudson Valley library. She’s telling me she wrote The Enemy Self. I’m telling her I definitely have eyes for her text.
After all, the late Laura - late of a fruit farm in Wabasso, Florida (The State. The State. Not the Village where the library…,), but born in New York City (Barbara and me too.) as Laura Reichenthal - whiz-kid who scholarships up to Cornell.
In Ithaca, she writes about growing up in a socialist, secular, Jewish household in Brooklyn. Red Dad and Mom were earnest about human progress. They weren’t big on animal rights though. Dad slew all of Jenny’s (Laura’ cat) kittens as his way of welcoming them into the world. Laura the non-sectarian would later write “cats were Christian pleasures”. An unusual thought , that.
Whilst versifying and being long gone of mom and pop, Laura ups and marries History Professor Dr. Gottschalk. Doc and Mizuzz G. leave Cornell before Laura gets her degree. Now a spouse, and never to be a bachelor, Laura was 22 when The Fugitive accepted several of her poems. Several other prominent journals did as well.
Meanwhile, the roving couple jumped form New York for a short stop in Illinois. From there they ambled to Louisville, where Doc Gottschalk got a teaching gig
With Laura now taking up residence in the Confederacy, Allen Tate ( the fugitive from The Fugitve) visited her in Kentucky. He was enchanted with his young contributor. “Her intelligence is pervasive, but always you get the conviction that the Devil and all Pandemonium couldn’t dissuade her of her tendency.”
Tate’s take on Riding would be echoed by all sorts of distinguished people - including Professor Barbara Adams herself.
Surely, Laura was sure of herself for sure.
Nevertheless, Tate was bemused, bewildered and bewitched. So Riding rode the railway to Tennessee - the Brooklyn Dodger who could hang with the bourbon and mint julep guys.
The fugitive group included Tate, John Crowe Ramson, Robert Penn Warren and others whose names I cant remember right now.
They were men of high learning, and a social and political conservatism that was born out of a sense that the “southern aristocratic tradition” was being eroded by technology and finance.
No one will ever think Brooklyn a place where the Stars and Bars could ever fly - but the impressed and somewhat puzzled gentlemen at Vanderbilt accepted the brilliant but severe philosopher-poet as a true blue and gray fugitive.
Now having charmed-dominated Lee’s last hold-out lieutenants, Riding dumped Gottschalk and moved back to New York. Somewhere in a two year?- whirlwind, J. C. Ransom mailed a copy of The Fugitive across the Atlantic to the still WWI weary Robert Graves. Graves was very much impressed with Laura Ridings poetry.
Back in the Apple, Laura was doing La Vie Boheme in the Village. Again, her companions were noteworthy: Maxwell Bodenheim, Malcom Cowley, E.E. Cummings, Mark Van Doren and her new best friend - Hart Crane,
Riding and Crane got along famously, had intense and passionate conversation about High Art, and the feast that WAS Gotham. Their intimacy halted before the door of the erotic.
But such was their closeness, that others saw them and winked and grinned to other salacious third parties. Those folks imaginings were awry. Riding did double duty as both constant companion and beard for the man who wrote The Bridge - and , while doing so, managed to cover the waterfront.
Robert Graves wrote ardently to Laura, In 1925, he invited her to stay with him and his spouse Nancy Nicolson in London. She accepted.
This commenced a ménage á some number not precisely known. What is known clearly is Graves’ obsession with Riding. She served as house guest and Roberts’s myth-muse white goddess. Riding took the her -worship in signature stride.
Crane voyaged to London in 1928. It all started well.Hart epistled; “Laura Riding and Robert Graves have been delightfully hospitable. I had a most luscious plum pudding with them Christmas. “
Plum pudding was the high point. Shortly thereafter, Crane was bitching about “…indigestible food AND Laura Riding’s hysterical temper…,”
She reciprocated in contempt, and spoke of “falsifactory characterization”.
Crane went away mad. “Mad” would be a word to characterize (in a non-falsificatory way) the pile-up by the Thames. After three years with Bob and Nancy - and then with and Irish bloke by name Geoffrey Phibbs, Riding took a back breaking plunge from a window of the flat in Saint Peter’s square.
She never recovered entirely from the fall. Only time, and not self (?) inflicted defenestration would silence Riding She lived another 60 plus years after the incident.
Nancy divorced Robert. Riding and Graves took Gertrude Stein’s advice and moved to Majorca in 1929. There they founded and both of them were management and labor for the little publishing house that could and did print beautiful, limited editions.
While on Majorca, Laura Riding maintained her own high standing amongst modernist literati. During her Balearic stay she published what is one of my personal library favorites, A Progress of Stories.
Graves became famous. He was published world-wide with Goodbye to All That and I, Claudius. He escaped obscurity forever. His demons, however, stayed put for his celebrity.
Many young writers made pilgrimages to the couple’s home in Deya. Among them - Alan Hodge, Norman Cameron, and Julian Symons, Tom Matthews, a Time magazine editor also arrived. Decades later, he wrote Jacks or Better - an account claimin Riding drove Graves crazy. And, eventually, stole his pal Schuyler Jackson for good.
Julian Symons (once famous for his mystery novels) wrote of her . “She came in, wearing a dark dress almost to the ground, and using a stick for her lameness. She was in her late thirties, and beautiful in a ferocious way…, There was something oppressive in Laura Riding’s certainty of tone…,”
I’ve mentioned enough judgments of a peculiar kidney. That is to say, Riding is masterful, authoritative, cock-sure. Her writing is unquestionably impressive…, BUT.
The connective “B” word is attached to Laura Riding’s literary reputation like a flagrant birthmark. Even Barbara Adams has it at the ready.
And, reader, please know it; Adams is truly authoritative regarding Laura Riding. Her 114 page book is a swift, well informed, and fine-styled piece of writing. I know of no better book about Riding than The Enemy Self.
But Riding was her own woman. Although an honorary Fugitive, upon first meeting her, Allen Tate had to qualify his admiration for her genius.
Tate, Ransom, Graves, Hart Crane, T.S. Matthews, Julian Symons…,
As I write this review - Wikipedia, that fount of all collected tidbits, says, in essence, “Yes. BUT.”
The second wave feminists of the 1970’s claimed proto-feminist writers like Woolf, Sackville-West, and the great and savage train wreck that was Sylvia Plath. They could even embrace the whip-smart maverick Susan Sontag. But with Riding, they held back.
Adams at a couple of points likens Riding to Ludwig Wittgenstein. The simile is apt.
So then. Why is the solitary, angry, notoriously difficult Wittgenstein valorized in the many hundreds (more likely thousands) of books about him ? His faults are always duly noted. And, after said faults being noted, why is this hero of thought almost always forgiven for his bad behavior?
Why is forgiveness absent from critical writing about Laura Riding.
I don’t know. But, I really don’t care.
Riding is one of the key figures in early 20th century poetry.
Her critical work was a seminal influence on a literary generation that believed in great literature.
As a modern philosopher writing in the English language, her only peer is Wittgenstein. And realize, reader, Wittgenstein admired the poetry of others. He just couldn’t write the stuff himself.
The Poems of Laura Riding
A Progress of Short Stories
Laura Riding. No ands, ifs, or buts.
Joe LeClerc is a writer and musician. He lives in the Hudson River Valley