To say that a poet, of any kind, might avoid being canonized is perhaps to say more about the canon being avoided than the writer at work. In the case of Laura Riding Jackson, however, what might seem like a blatant omission by those vested with the power for canon-making is, at least partially, the result of a poet whom over the course of her life carved a labyrinthine maze of contrariness, artistic rebellion, and deliberate self-erasure. Riding Jackson was best known for her association with the Fugitives, a group of poets and scholars, including Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who published a literary magazine called The Fugitive from 1922 to 1925. She is also widely known for her literary partnership with Robert Graves and as the editor of Epilogue, an octavo hardback periodical of about 250 pages in length, which featured a John Aldridge engraving of stage figures on the front board. She produced most of her life’s work—eleven volumes of poetry and nine of prose—between 1926 and 1939. At the age of forty, when most writers are just hitting their stride, she married, went into hiding and dramatically denounced poetry altogether.
Riding Jackson’s enigmatically marginal status in the canon of modernist poetry would later inspire Ken Ruthven to title his assessment of her oeuvre and reputation “How to avoid being canonized: Laura Riding” in a 1991 article in Textual Practice. For Ruthven, “Riding remains a figure almost everybody connected with literary studies has heard of but nobody feels obliged to read – and this in spite of the respectful admiration she has attracted from different readerships at different times on account of her operations on a range of different fronts.” Riding Jackson’s operations, to borrow Ruthven’s term, rest in large part on poetry’s ability to not only represent reality but to tell the truth. Her work suggests, as Robert Fitzgerald wrote, “that the art of language is the most fitting instrument with which to press upon full reality and make it known.”
Of the many poetic topics through which Riding Jackson explored this form of truth telling, the human face appears as a recurring motif where themes of love, death, existence, and accuracy are staged on a grand and mythologising scale. Often the most visible part of the body, the face plays a “central role in evoking, mediating and receiving a wide range of feelings, emotions, and affects such as pleasure, contentment, comfort, security, anger, frustration, shame, sorrow and regret.” In evolutionary terms, the face is also a “sensory receptor and a screen for the display of attitudes and intentions vis-a-vis the other.” In this sense, the face’s external display can be variously understood as either “the expression of an underlying emotion,” as constituting some kind of emotion, or “may be understood as a signalling process.” Yet despite these traits, there is also an elusiveness about the face. Even if a person is displaying a clear sense of emotion on their face, it can never be determined for certain whether that emotion is being felt. It is perhaps for this reason that Riding came to use the face in her poetry as a canvas upon which to tease out essential questions of objective reality and truth. The faces that appear in Riding Jackson’s poetry are presented less as fixed images or objects than they are as fragmented, aesthetic forces that push the lyric into a strangely universal yet intensely subjective zone of contemplation.
In what follows I briefly consider this tendency in Riding Jackson’s work with a focus on her peculiar sequence of ‘face’ poems “Body’s Head,” first published in Poetry in 1925 and subsequently in The Close Chaplet by Hogarth Press in 1926. Along with an essay she published in The Reviewer in 1925 entitled “A Prophecy or a Plea,” The Close Chaplet laid the foundation for what Riding Jackson viewed as a precise formula for observing the world and writing from within it, “an experience in which we are the passive objects of a force to which our nature offers no resistance, but transmits the shock of impact to the functions of poetry.” “Body’s Head” exemplifies this strategy by bringing perhaps the most observed and known of natural phenomena—the human face—into relationship with an uncanny new way of perceiving the world. The possessive noun in the sequence’s title, in which the head is owned by the body, is perhaps intended to mirror the inverted syntactic formulas that underpin Riding Jackson’s lyrics. While the body is often thought of as that which the human mind controls and directs, to suggest through an oddly constructed grammatical reversal that the head is owned by the body, introduces the sequence’s upended phenomenological logic at its outset. The cluster charts a blazon-like map of the face across seven short lyrics: “Hair,” “Head Itself,” “Forehead,” “Eyes,” “Nose,” “Ears,” and “Mouth.” While all the poems employ a radical form of prosopopoeia to construct faces that confuse internal and external or subjective and objective states, in this discussion I will focus briefly on “Eyes,” “Nose” and “Mouth” because of their exemplification of this tendency.
In contrast to the standard function of prosopopoeia, which confers a voice onto an abstract or absent entity, Riding Jackson subverts face-making, and by extension face-reading, by decoupling the face from a singular voice but simultaneously engaging a direct address that critiques the poetic act of decoupling. This strategy might seem to echo the prior impersonal poetic masks that underpin the modernist poetics of figures such as Eliot, Pound and Yeats, who adopt myriad poetic personae to speak from a range of subject positions. However, the shifting speakers and unsettling focus on epistemology in the “Body’s Head” poems is highly specific in its reclaiming of personality, and by extension the face, as an assemblage of not just the mask, not just the human form, but something else altogether. Consider, for instance, the following lines from “Eyes,” the fourth poem in the sequence:
Imagine two clouds shot together by the sunset,
One like a white cloth passed through a purple wine,
Dripping and faintly dyed,
Whirling centrifugally away toward the night
And later halved and rounded by the moon;
Rolled like blue butter-balls|
In the palms of the moon’s hands
And rimmed elliptically with almost-white moon-stuff,
The moon’s particular godmother gift.
Some nearly impossible vision like this
Is necessary for the mood of my eyes.
This first section of the poem epitomizes a subjective shift that Riding Jackson engages in each of the lyrics in “Body’s Head.” Like the “two clouds shot together by the sunset” that launches “Eyes,” each poem in the sequence begins in a highly imagistic, aesthetic register before engaging an overtly intellectual speaker who then attempts to map that aesthetics onto a source object (in this case, an eye or set of eyes). The first-person speaker enters late and unexpectedly in each poem in a move that seems designed to catch the reader off guard and, in the process, destabilise the intricate visual schema with which each lyric opens. These uncanny shifts (“Some nearly impossible vision like this / Is necessary for the mood of my eyes”), which present a sudden intrusion into the poem’s visual logic, announce the quasi-scientific register that characterises Riding Jackson’s truth-telling. The eyes of the poem change almost imperceptibly from the abstract to the particular as Riding Jackson brings the poem’s speaker into focus.
By the end of the second stanza, the lines “Lifting the final rite of this ceremony of presentation: / Behold my mystic eyes” announce an almost theatrical enactment that, again, sets the poem off on a different course. Despite these startling changes in direction and tone, the poem’s central subject is nevertheless language itself as a truth-telling mechanism, which works by alerting readers to the poem’s composed features. In this way, as Jerome McGann writes, Riding Jackson’s poems do not “point toward any truth beyond” their own “interactive features,” their own textuality.” The sudden leap from a phantasmagorical exposition of white cloth, moons and purple wine into an objective reality in which the key feature is the poet’s own involvement (“Behold my mystic eyes”) opens up a gap between the reader’s world of expectation and interpretation and the ultimate truth of the poem’s “textedness” on the page. In other words, the poem asks that we not be “distracted from the literal drama of the text, as if its truth lay somewhere beyond the immediate communicative event.”
In a continuation of this logic, at the poem’s end the speaker considers the failure of the object (eyes) altogether before investing the ability to ‘see’ in an inward-looking, subjective truth rather than a bodily function:
Or, if the eyes fail,
If the optical bodies of sight die,
Sight still lives where I live,
Sight is immortal in me,
Free of the bond of outward vision—
The inner sense of life,
Death is the only blindness.
The effect here is to use the discursive and instructive power of the lyric to dissolve the object of study at precisely the moment it comes into focus. This disintegrated and mosaic-like approach to facial aesthetics echoes Georg Simmel’s hypothesis in his 1901 essay “The Aesthetic Significance of the Face” in which he posits that if you look at a face too closely its “inner unity” dissolves into fragmented pieces. Thus, the discrete features that a person presents to us on the surface of the face are said to rearrange themselves in an entirely different order if we approach (or, in Riding Jackson’s case, see) them from a new perspective. This effect is also suggested by Jacobs’ observation that, for Riding Jackson, “the function of the poet, of the poetic mind, is inductive rather than deductive.” Poems, for Riding Jackson, are therefore “not mere observations of outer things as they strike the mind’s eye,” rather “they put meaning into what is observed – make sense, so to speak, of what is there.” In this way, Riding Jackson’s lyrics present an alternative view of world-existence, of how “things and humans emerge from the mystery of their creation.”
Moving along the sequence, in the poem “Nose,” the fragmentation of face becomes humorously cynical and ultimately metatheatrical as the speaker begins to cross-examine the role of the poet herself in presenting the lyric sequence in the first place:
If I could resist the humorous temptation,
The wry inducement of the follow-your-nose thought,
I might deal with anatomy and arrangement only
And forego the privilege of my subject.
But humor is the truth a little giddy—
I cannot confront my nose with a lie.
So let me introduce my nose derisively
Or be derisively introduced by it.
If nothing else, these lines reveal a poet amused and entertained at her own cerebral bravado. The speaker’s concern with her subject matter verges on ridicule, not of the subject itself but of the reader who might come to expect something practical from the close study of the physical contours of the human face. Having set up a cat-and-mouse like game that leads us into an irresolvable loop between image, object, abstraction, emotion, and reality, the speaker then reintroduces her subject matter in such a way as to suggest that all prior conceptualizations of the nose were merely a game: “I cannot confront my nose with a lie.” In this sense, “Nose” exemplifies the ways in which Riding’s lyrics aren’t exactly emotionally or aesthetically satisfying in an immediate way. They don’t necessarily startle us or make us gasp. Rather, to paraphrase Jacobs, they leave us floundering, slightly behind, looking for a payoff in the concluding lines.
Finally, in “Mouth,” the last poem of the sequence, we get the crucial closing lines that seal the cluster off and, in a sense, become the final word, the closing of the poem’s lips:
The little words go stumbling over the sill,
And laughter tumbles out
Upon the inaugural somersault of a smile.
Sorrow taps gently here for admission . . . .
To be broken again and ever again,
And to be thus eternized
Through the remorseless thrust of each fresh violation
Of what had been most securely death,
This might be a seal set on me
Just for this.
These final images feel like a warping of the sequence proper, a suggestion that the whole routine has been less an expression or an evocation of some inner state but rather a quest for a form of truth that might not, after all, be found in the face. The lines “To be broken again and ever again, / And to be thus eternized” suggest that the mouth, and by extension the face, might be made and remade for eternity, depending on the motivations of the observer. This shows, in the end and as Fisher has pointed out, how rather than the “uncovering of truth” that Riding problematically defines as the poetic purpose, her poetry instead often reveals itself as the very impossibility of its own project and purpose to reveal “truth” in the absolute sense. And the antidote to this irresolvable paradox is, for Riding Jackson, to let the poem become its own autonomous truth-teller. Her lyrics, then, give the sense that the intellectual mind of the poet is an apparatus for the construction of the poem but that its existence as poem comes only from the language itself. Following this seductive and challenging logic, the poems of faciality, truth and the universe contained in “Body’s Head,” despite their obvious derisiveness and obscurity, ultimately administer an affective jolt that draws readers into a timeless, often-placeless terrain of object, mind and image that challenges the status and hermeneutics of the object of observation.
Tyne Daile Sumner is a Research Fellow in English in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her research expertise is in C20th American poetry, lyric studies, surveillance, digital humanities and cultural data. She is author of Lyric Eye: The Poetics of Twentieth-Century Surveillance (Routledge 2021) and has published and forthcoming articles in Antipodes, Gender & History, Australian Literary Studies, Journal of Intercultural Studies and others. Together with Professor Stephanie Trigg, Dr Joe Hughes and Professor Guillemette Bolens, Tyne is part of the ARC-funded project Literature and the Face: A Critical History, based at the University of Melbourne.
K.K. Ruthven, “How to avoid being canonized: Laura Riding.” Textual Practice 5.2 (1992), 250.
Robert Fitzgerald, “Review of The Collected Poems of Laura Riding.” Kenyon Review 1 (1939): 341-345, 341.
Kaima Negishi, “From surveillant text to surveilling device: The face in urban transit spaces.” Surveillance & Society 11.3 (2013): 324-333, 324.
John Frow, Character and Person (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 235.
“Introduction: Laura Riding and The Close Chaplet,” Laura Riding Jackson. (https://lauraridingjackson.org.uk/)
Laura Riding Jackson, “Eyes.” Poetry 27.2 (1925): 62-64, 62.
Jerome McGann. Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 133.
Laura Riding Jackson, “Eyes.” Poetry 27.2 (1925): 62-64, 64.
Georg Simmel, Essays on Art and Aesthetics. Ed. Austin Harrington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2020), 231.
Mark Jacobs, “Introduction.” The Close Chaplet (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2018), 4.
Laura Riding Jackson, “Nose.” Poetry 27.2 (1925): 62-64, 64.
- Laura Riding Jackson, “Mouth.” Poetry 27.2 (1925): 62-64, 66.
Tom Fisher, “Reading Renunciation: Laura Riding’s Modernism and the End of Poetry.” Journal of Modern Literature 33.3 (2010): 9.