A fierce intellectual pacifism
Riding's 'Contemporaries and Snobs'
In writing on poetics, we often find a necessary equivocation. Turning over the pages of an old issue of Poetry, you might discover “The Meaning of Simplicity” by poet Yannis Ritsos. In its simplicity the final stanza of the short poem opens questions for the reader, revealing something unsayable and elusively poetic. The poem concludes:
Every single word is an exodus
for a meeting, cancelled many times,
it is a true word when it insists on the meeting.
We are left to wonder if we have met these words, yet we are not in doubt of their poetry: it is insistent; it meets us. Words reach us and reach beyond us, forging “meetings,” creating poetry, these “true words.” Translated from the Modern Greek by Rae Dalven in 1970, these lines appeared over forty years ago, and more than forty years after the publication of Laura Riding’s 1928 book entitled Contemporaries and Snobs, recently reissued by the University of Alabama Press. “The Meaning of Simplicity” should serve as an apt epigraph to this analysis of Riding’s dense book, with its chapters frustrated by her contemporaries’ dismissal of simplicity, haunted, and yet enamored — enraptured, even — by poetry’s potential to put forth “true words” that might give us the long-overdue, welcome, and necessary rendezvous.
Riding does not want poetry to tell us its knowledge, to get us to recognize it as if it were science. The elusiveness of knowing the truth of being — yes, that messy ontological stuff — is what Laura Riding is after in poetry. The efforts of modernists — exemplified by those she considers snobbish, learned poet-critics — to classify, categorize, and analyze poetry is the cancellation of that meeting Ritsos imagines. Riding bemoans any efforts to complicate poetry that interfere with the poet’s ability to create what she calls a “true poem.”
Defining poetry, on page one, as in some sense “the meaning at work in what has no meaning,” Riding argues that poetry must be “personal” — in conflict with the impersonal (1). Criticism, though not singularly bad or wrong, “develops a shame of the person” and gets us further and further away from the genius that is poetry. Riding concludes, “Critically conceived poetry at the present time is historical rather than poetic” (61). Riding is passionate about poetry as an elusive meaning-meaningless creation and yet deeply disappointed in it, time and time again. That meeting has been deferred over and over.
Attempting to both eschew systematic definitions of poetry and knowledge and yet to better understand the definitions’ failures through an unraveling of them, Riding is insistent at the very least on poetry’s significance, even if that significance is impossible to grasp. According to Riding, the poetic intelligence is valuable precisely because it “is an accurate sensation of the unknown, an inspired comprehension of the unknowable” (5). In contrast to concrete intelligence, which “suffers from the illusion of knowledge,” Riding positions herself not unlike a Socrates, wiser for the knowledge of all that is unknown — and unknowable outside the poetic intelligence. Poetic truth is valued above all else.
Riding is unabashedly complicated in her own critique. One of the first things the reader of Contemporaries and Snobs may notice is Riding’s own intelligence, which is learned, vast, and sharp. Often deeply tongue-in-cheek, her saucy tone, meandering through the “shoulds” of critics only to then upend them as bombastic nonsense, is both playful and earnest at once. She is a critic bewailing criticism, a poet crying out for poetry, the smartest woman in the room rolling her eyes at all of us knowingly. One might forget that the book was written nearly a century ago.
The reader already familiar with Riding’s Anarchism Is Not Enough, which was reprinted in 2001, may wish to go deeper into Riding’s critique of T. S. Eliot and the modernist project in general, and its relation to history, literary and otherwise. But one will not come out of the reading of Contemporaries and Snobs with a eureka moment of clarity, announcing, “So this is where I grip the slippery mind of Laura Riding!” The wily Riding remains elusive, and yet with increasing clarity her intellectual project is illumined. This unknowable of poetry is its most essential quality.
Riding’s commitment to poetry energizes her fight against the authority of modernist poet-critics, her challenge to contemporaries who insist on contextualizing, and her dismissal of snobs fixed on historicizing. Riding is bold in her critiques, with allegiances to no one, and the impressive intellectual force of her analyses is invigorating even at their messiest. She is skeptical of the critic, and especially of criticism’s codification of poetry, that systematization which results in the removal of the “truth” from poetry. She attacks “the poet [who] keeps up his illusion of self-respect under a cloak of salvaged history and legend” (39). Riding has no patience for this illusion, these snobbisms. Her investigation of the relationships between poetry and society, the poet and the poet’s work, the critic, critical reception, and the art itself, reveals Riding as profoundly passionate about poetry’s importance, while the nature of that importance remains elliptical, even equivocal. This, it turns out, is precisely the point, and precisely the reason that we must resist precision of definitions, uniformity, and the seductions of criticism itself.
Riding, a confident critic herself, does not altogether dismiss criticism, but limits it to the responsibility of making sense of poetry and history, a fraught endeavor. As a critic, she draws the reader through her own sense-making of centuries of English poetry in the chapter “Poetry and the Literary Universe,” the first dense part of Contemporaries and Snobs. The overwhelming problematic she identifies in this history is not with critics per se, but with poets who write under the problematic influence of critical discourse. Work that asserts the importance of “the contemporary time-sense” — poetry in the thrall of what she calls the Zeitgeist — is for Riding anathema to true poetry. Poets who write asserting that the Zeitgeist is essential to writing poetry of significance are more important as recorders of history than as poets. These poets include the likes of Byron and Goethe, whose “poetry died as it was being written” (10). As an antidote to the imposition of doctrine by critical authorities, Riding calls for “a bold reinstatement of the person in poetry” (17). The poet, explains Riding, needs to return to the personal so as not to be swept away by the “concrete intelligence,” otherwise known as the Zeitgeist, rather than the “poetic intelligence” (18).
Since poetic intelligence is something that can’t be pinned down, it is not concrete. In order to express this, the poet must resist the lure of the Zeitgeist. Forcing “historical effort” on the poet, as prescribed by Riding’s contemporaries, hinders expression, hampers what Riding calls true poetry. Instead, it creates a “group poetic mind” (54) whose values are snobbish, imitative, and limiting. The poet-critics’ rapture with tradition inevitably leads to this problem, even as it struggles to distinguish itself from that tradition. Insisting that what we fight against is doomed to remain close, in relation by a destructive intimacy, Riding here, as in Anarchism Is Not Enough, calls for a kind of radical intellectual pacifism. Riding’s work argues against the critic’s insistence on absolutes or “first principles,” argues for resisting the attraction to assessments. Dangerously, through systematization and uniformity, poetry might fall in line with critics, making them able to apply standards and perform assessments of poetry’s art. Riding laments poets who fail to assert an expression of ineffable poetic truths to instead become cogs in the critical machinery of the Zeitgeist. The place of the critic is then a short imaginative leap from an intellectual fascist — not an untimely comparison in a book composed in Europe between two world wars. In Contemporaries and Snobs she writes: “Underneath the bustle and clutter of historical interpretations, underneath the disguise of a category — poetry can be free to be what it has always been, an entity which can lend itself to the absolute entirety of barbaric humanity or to the relative entirety of civilized personality, but which remains fundamentally independent and unaffected by historical changes; its purpose being not to express history, humanity or personality, but itself” (59). Riding stridently, even wishfully, asserts that poetry — such as the work of Gertrude Stein, her celebrated example here — might yet transcend the trap of an autocratic hegemony of rote sophistication if it can resist the temptations of the historical moment.
Contemporaries and Snobs is complex, smart, and decidedly scolding in tone. It qualifies as a rant, a rant of the most polished and impressive sort. Unraveling the thread of Contemporaries and Snobs is challenging work, but worth the effort for readers interested in the concerns that matter to Riding. She rails against the poet who writes in the thrall of the Zeitgeist, and as a critic she is buoyant and blistering at turns, celebrating poetry and critical of its withering under the burden of criticism itself. Riding wants writers to seize their critical contempt and fling the sense of duty to the historical moment out the window, get rid of the snobbisms and sentiments that collide to dilute the poetic mind. The poet must be “free from the time-sense” (59). Riding does not tell us what this resultant poetry would look like, because it is never formulaic, systematic, or uniform. She criticizes her contemporary poetry for being “mechanistic” (38). Riding makes the significance of poetry itself feel important, although categorizing it at all is an exercise in futility. Riding champions what cannot be captured, the truth that exists outside the proscribed limits of language, of time, of the Zeitgeist.
“Criticism can only have authority over the poem if the poet’s mind was from the start not sufficiently clear, sufficiently free of criticism; if it obeyed an existing, that is, a past order of reality, rather than a present order of reality, that is, the order of the things which do not yet exist” (23). The past reality might be consistent with the poetic, in that the poetic might have transcended the time-sense. Riding asserts quandaries without really giving us a means to unravel them, yet the density of thought in which she situates her puzzles gives the ideas their significance. We pluck some wisdom from her erudition, querulousness, and insights, ponder them in our own time, on our own terms, through our own circuits or at our own ever-sprawling limits. The sprawling nature of her own thicket is what allows the reader’s mind to spread, to build and create, escaping the perils of didacticism that Riding would have derailed.
Earnestly seeking poetry, Riding tells us, “the pure poem is arrived at by subtracting the poem from itself.” How, we might ask, does this happen? “Only its limits remain, its points of origin and of communication.” The poem is its own shell, its own impossibility of achieving itself. “The rest is a time and space necessity between them, the place, presumably, which the poetic mind leaves to be filled in by the contemporary mind” (23). Riding calls to mind Anne Carson, who writes in Eros, the Bittersweet: “The words we read and the words we write never say exactly what we mean.” And yet, the desirous reach persists in Carson, even as in Riding the dedication to that true poetry remains. “In any act of thinking,” Carson insists, “the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space” (171). For all its querulousness, Riding’s urgency is in a desire for some more intense poetic knowing. Riding’s intellectual rigor is always on the side of poetry, of the life of the mind that escapes explicability.
2. The final chapter of Contemporaries and Snobs is dedicated to a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe, giving another opportunity to critique the critics, to challenge the celebration of this American writer, with Eliot as a selected illustration of critical snobbery.
3. Riding’s writing is informed by a mind deeply involved in its materials. She had, after all, cowritten A Survey of Modernist Poetry (with Robert Graves) the previous year, in 1927, and had been active as a poet and critic for several years.
4. It is not surprising that Riding later went on to create her famous projects A Dictionary of Related Meanings in the 1930s and Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, published in 1974. These projects both attempt to limit our meanings of words to get not at a clearer understanding of vocabulary, but at a more accurate understanding of all that is impossible to contain in language, no matter how malleable we might try to make it.
5. As a strong critic of the men dominating the discourse of her time — and the entire twentieth century during which she lived — Riding treats the work of Edith Sitwell with as much attention as that of William Wordsworth, and rather more than Alexander Pope (30–31). Her analysis assumes a reader familiar with the literary history on which she is commenting, a reader familiar with Dryden and Pope and Milton, who might appreciate her identifying “the amazing critical banalities of Wordsworth” without explication.