Poetry, J

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

J is for Jackson, Laura Riding

Laura JacksonLaura Riding Jackson (1901-1991) was a renowned American poet, essayist, and critic. She was also a woman with a hell of a lot of names, and she could occupy any one of a number of spots in a Poetry A-Z series: she was born Laura Reichenthal; was first published under the name Laura Riding Gottschalk; subsequently dropped Gottschalk and went with Riding; and finally adopted Laura Riding Jackson as her authorial name from 1963 onwards. Since we’ve reached J in our poets’ alphabet, we’re going to go with Ms. Jackson.

Jackson was born in New York, grew up in Brooklyn, and was educated at Cornell University, where she first started writing poetry. Her early work attracted the attention of the Fugitives, an influential group of young Southern poets and scholars whose members included Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. They published her poetry in their eponymous literary magazine, The Fugitive, in 1923, and formally invited her to join the group in March 1925. When the group awarded her the prestigious Nashville Prize for poetry in 1924, they praised her “sound intellectuality” and “keen irony,” and noted that her poems were “concerned with profound issues.”

Around this time, Jackson’s first marriage, to her former Cornell history tutor Louis R. Gottschalk, was dissolving. The couple divorced in 1925, and at the end of that year Jackson moved to England. She’d been invited to Blighty by the poet Robert Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson, and she moved in with the couple as soon as she arrived. Although this arrangement seemed to work for a while, it must eventually have become a rather difficult ménage à trois: Jackson jumped out of a fourth-floor window in 1929, nearly killing herself. This drama prompted Graves to leave his wife—quite the literary scandal at the time—and move with Jackson to Deià, Majorca. There they continued to run their small publishing company, Seizin Press, which put out a magazine, Epilogue (1935-1938), and published avant-garde writers like Gertrude Stein. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the couple left Majorca and lived in England and France before moving to America in 1939. They parted ways shortly afterwards, and Jackson began a relationship with the critic Schuyler B. Jackson.

In 1941, Jackson renounced poetry—she later claimed it was because she found poetry incompatible with truth. She married Schuyler Jackson and they moved to a citrus farm in Wabasso, Florida, where Jackson withdrew from public life. Together, the couple devoted themselves to a new task: producing a comprehensive study of language that was intended to offer “a fundamental re-evaluation” of the way words work. Schuyler Jackson died in 1968, and Jackson continued working on the project after his death; their book, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, was posthumously published in 1997. It does not sound like a fun read.

Jackson hasn’t had the best press over the years. Virginia Woolf called her “a shallow, egotistical, cock-crowing creature” and William Carlos Williams referred to her as “a prize bitch.” She was blamed for breaking up Graves’ marriage, and she further damaged her reputation by sending lengthy, admonishing letters (referred to as “Lauragrams” by one frustrated reviewer) to anyone she believed had misrepresented some aspect of her life or work. Some critics see this as proof of an egomaniacal need for control, but a more generous interpretation is also possible: how could Jackson refrain from insisting that details matter when she was obsessed with “truth” and devoted her career, first as a poet and later as a scholar, to the notion of “a linguistically ordained ideal”?

Laura JacksonIn any case, it seems a little unfair that so many discussions about Jackson as a writer seem to become messy squabbles over whether she was a homewrecking control freak or a misunderstood (if pedantic) romantic. What matters is the work itself, and there’s no denying that during the first half of her life, Jackson wrote some of the most original, serious-minded poetry of the twentieth century. She was prolific, producing eleven volumes of poetry between 1926-1939, and highly regarded by many of her peers. Berryman hailed her as “the peer of any woman now writing poetry in English” and Auden called her “the only living philosophical poet.” In fact, Graves once wrote the young Auden a letter in which he reprimanded Auden for imitating Jackson’s style. For a taste of her best work, I recommend the series “The City of Cold Women” (1924), published in its entirety in Poetry. Here’s an excerpt:

The Lovers

They come glowing to the gates of the city,
Armed with tenderness,
Resolute to parade
Beneath the windows of the cold women,
With their gifts warm on their shoulders.

The women sit frigidly smiling in their frames,
And their eyes are the eyes of Medusa.
Who but lovers,
Who but unslaked lovers may be starved so?

There is one bird left in the city of the cold women,
Forager of doorsteps,
Cosset of cold women.
It is sweet carrion they scatter to him.

* * *


Are there words thin enough for such thin lips?
Smiles are more tenuous than laughter,
And their only echo is pain.

* * *


The roofs of the city are a bleak mist
Brooding over the sharpness beneath them:
Walls stroked to corners by the hands of the cold women,
Fireplaces for irony.
We shall not wonder at rimed mirrors—
Windows give up their secrets,
Not mirrors.

In the houses of the city of cold women
There are shadows.
They may be children,
They titillate the light so bashfully.

There are tired lilies, propped to apathy.