alerts will be an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically. Your response is invited.


Why is "Riding" hiding, and who is speaking to us from within that evocative parenthesis? In "Disclaimer of the Person," an "I" riddles its way into self-definition: "I am a woman. / I am not the sun which multiplied, / I am the moon which singled. / I am not the moon but a singling." A relentlessly singular female voice carves through language into naming-as-being: "I am I. / I am my name. / My name is not my name. / It is the name of what I say. / My name is what is said. / I alone say. / I alone am not I. / I am my name. / My name is not my name, / My name is the name."

Comparisons with Gertrude Stein come to mind, yet the association is misleading. Joyce Piell Wexler, who has written the first book about Riding, explains the difference: "While Stein wanted to break down the historical associations of words to make language a neutral medium like paint or stone, Riding wanted to destroy the personal associations of words to make language a medium for the universal." The person, the persona, the personal are whittled down to the irreducible minimum, disclaimed, even discarded, so that poetry may attain to truth through the accuracy of its language. No emotion, no lyricism, above all, no confessions.

During the '20's and '30's, when she reigned over modernist poetry circles in New York, London and Majorca, Riding believed that "to go to poetry is the most ambitious act of the mind." (W.H. Auden called her "the only living philosophical poet.") Yet she renounced poetry as mendacious c. 1940 and withdrew from print into the parenthesis of a private life. Riding left Robert Graves, her companion and disciple of many years, to marry Schuyler B. Jackson, definitively displacing her personal name.

This disappearing act puzzles us more than forty years later. Riding gave an account in the "Preface" to her Selected Poems: she said that she renounced poetry because of "something poetry fails to be--belying its promissory advertisement of itself." Poets failed to see "the problem of poetry as a problem in the field of language"; they exalted the technicalities of "craft" over the difficulties of "creed." Like children entranced with gaudy toys, such poets fell in love with poetry's sensuous appeal and forgot its mission to attain to spiritual truth.

Already in 1930, Riding called poet "a lying word," using the deliberate prose of a seer: "It is a false wall, a poet: it is a lying word. It is a wall that closes and does not." One must "stare the wall through now, well through" to a poem that is "a written edge of time." In Selected Poems, Riding included work that strives toward such an extreme, that suggests a "something after" the traditional consolations of poetry. Consider "Beyond":

Pain is impossible to describe
Pain is the impossibility of describing
Describing what is impossible to describe
Which must be a thing beyond description
Beyond description not to be known
Beyond knowing but not mystery
Not mystery but pain not plain but pain
But pain beyond but here beyond

The reader "stares through" the inadequacy of language to pain's paradoxical transcendence, reaching past Emily Dickinson's "formal feeling" to a "here beyond."

Given the willful avoidance of poetic figure, the intensity of an occasional metaphor is all the more startling, as in the very Dickensonian "Death as Death":

To conceive death as death
Is difficulty come by easily,
A blankness fallen among
Images of understanding,
Death like a quick cold hand
On the hot slow head of suicide.
So is it come by easily
For one instant. Then again furnaces
Roar in the ears, then again hell revolves,
And the elastic eye holds paradise
At visible length from blindness,
And dazedly the body echoes
"Like this, like this, like nothing else."

But death, "Like nothing--a similarity / Without resemblance," itself undermines the uses of metaphor, however startling. This is poetry which all but undoes its own raison d'ętre and strides calmly toward the temptations of silence.

"Fragment," (not included in either Selected Poems or the 1980 Persea/Carcanet editions) appears less somber, almost good-naturedly Steinian in its language experimentation.

What a tattle-tattle we.
And what a rattle-rattle me.
What a rattle-tattle-rattle-tattle we-me.
What a rattle-tattle.
What a rattle-tattle.
What a me.
What a what a
What a
What a
What a

Yet the poem pares itself away before our very eyes, in a very unSteinian gesture toward a minimalist conclusion of both language and relationship.

When Riding wrote love poems, they too were unlike anyone else's. Physical love attains a perfection and a permanence through its translation into language in "When Love Becomes Words":

To be loving is to lift the pen
And to use it both, and the advance
From dumb resolve to the delight
Of finding ourselves not merely fluent
But ligatured in the embracing words
Is by the metaphor of love,
And still a cause of kiss among us,
Though kiss we do not--or so knowingly,
The taste is lost in the taste of the thought.

Love-making, like poem-making, should advance to the realm of thought, putting aside the sensuous intoxication of mere physicality.

In the years just before her defection from poetry, however, Riding found that there were still "as many questions as answers"--the title of her poem excerpted below (which Stein may have been quoting as her famous last words).

What is to start?
It is to have feet to start with.
What is to end?
It is to have nothing to start again with,
And not to wish.
. . . . . . .
What is to be?
It is to bear a name.
What is to die?
It is to be name only.
. . . . . . .
What is to ask?
It is to find an answer.
What is to answer?
Is it to find a question?

This aphoristic catechism reopens the questions of being, being named, knowing, and implicitly, the conditions that underlie the possibility of writing intelligently. One can see why Riding withdrew into speculations about the adequacy of language to the expression of first questions: hers has always been "a mind locked in combat with words" (Wexler). Many will find her austere, perhaps even "appallingly bleak" (Louis MacNiece), yet her linguistic combat offers an alternative to blatant confessionalism and a cure for facile poetics. Austere, yes, but with a certain grand, impersonal honor.

--Carolyn Burke


The poems quoted may be found in:
Laura Riding, Selected Poems: in Five Sets, Norton, 1973, Laura (Riding) Jackson, The Poems of Laura Riding, Persea (U.S.), Carcanet (U.K.)

See Joyce Piell Wexler's critical biography, Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth, Ohio University Press, 1979, and the following: Jane Marcus, "Laura Riding Roughshod," in Extended Outlooks: The Iowa Review Collection of Contemporary Women Writers, Macmillan, 1982.

Carolyn Burke has published work on recent French feminist writing in Signs, Critical Inquiry and Feminist Studies. She is currently at work on a critical biography of Mina Loy.

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Jed Rasula's review of ten books by or about the women writers of the modernist generation seems to be generally well-informed (though he perhaps doesn't know--at least he doesn't mention--that H.D.'s The Gift, as issued by New Directions, is drastically cut) and is a useful contribution. The review begins with a fantasy that the work of the major male writers of that period is out-of-print and inaccessible by way of illustrating what has been, in fact, the case with the women writers. His statement that "feminists have ignored the modernist women writers as blissfully as the men have" is, however, simply not true. The only evidence that Rasula offers for this judgment is the comment of an English professor's "female colleague on the appearance of the two recent books on H.D. She seemed uninterested, and pressed for a response, dismissingly said 'H.D., oh, she's a man's poet.' " This woman's lack of interest in H.D. is fortunately not typical of literary feminists generally. If there is a renaissance of women writers, feminist scholars, poets, novelists and serious readers have helped to create it. A glance at the publishing record of feminist scholars will confirm this.

As for the unnamed "female colleague" Rasula cites, I would propose this: on a certain page in Love's Body, Norman O. Brown asks, "Who is my real mother? It is a political question." It is a man's question, and perhaps now also a woman's.

--Beverly Dahlen


Looking at the bookshelf above my typewriter, I find a number of works on modernists written by women scholars over the past decade: Susan Stanford Friedman's ground-breaking essay "Who Buried H.D.?", College English, 1975; Marjorie Perloff's chapter on Gertrude Stein in The Poetics of lndeterminacy, Princeton U. Press, 1981 (originally printed in APR, 1979); Susan Gubar's H.D. essay, included in the modernist section of Shakespeare's Sisters, Indiana U. Press, 1979; Marianne DeKoven's book on Stein, A Different Language, U. of Wisconsin Press, 1983; Alicia Ostriker's chapter on "Learning to read H.D." in her recent book, Writing Like a Woman, U. of Michigan Press, 1983; Carolyn Burke's essay on Stein, originally published in Critical Inquiry, 1981, and now available in the re-printed collection of essays, Writing and Sexual Difference, edited by Elizabeth Abel for U. of Chicago Press; Rachel Blau DuPlessis' many essays on H.D., two appearing in Montemora 6, 1979, and Contemporary Literature, 1979 (MLA presentation, 1977), and three more, co-authored with Susan Stanford Friedman, in Montemora 8, 1981, Feminist Studies 7, 1981, and Ms., Feb., 1982, most of which will be re-printed in her collection, Writing Beyond the Ending; Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers , Indiana U. Press, in September, 1984; Suzanne Juhasz's essay on Marianne Moore, in her book of criticism, Naked and Fiery Forms, Harper and Row, 1979; Helen Vendler's essay on Moore, originally published by The New Yorker, 1978, later in her book Part of Nature, Part of Us, Harvard U. Press, 1980; Gloria G. Fromm's biography, Dorothy Richardson, U. of Illinois, 1977; Virginia Kouidis' Mina Loy: American-Modernist Poet, Louisiana State U. Press, 1980; Bonnie Costello's Marianne Moore, Imaginary Possessions, Harvard U. Press, 1981; and Marianne Moore, Poet of Affection, by Pamela Hadas, Syracuse U. Press, 1977.

This is only a sampling. Some other magazines featuring work on women modernists by women scholars include: Signs, Massachusetts Review, Truck and Sagetrieb. Over the last decade of Modern Language Association meetings, one has had the privilege of hearing an increasing variety of papers on the modernist women by women scholars--many feminist-identified, some not. Long in-the-works is Barbara Guest's forthcoming biography, Herself Defined: H.D., the Poet and her Work, due from Doubleday, spring 1984. Carolyn Burke has been working for several years on a critical biography of Mina Loy. Poetics Journal 4, winter 1984, will focus on "Women and Modernism," with articles on individual authors as well as related esthetic questions, by Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Carla Harryman, Leslie Scalapino, Abigail Childs, Susan Laufer, Francoise Larocque, Johanna Drucker, Sally Silver, Ellen Zweig, Beverly Dahlen, Kathleen Fraser and Carolyn Burke.

All in all, this adds up to a rather solid indication of scholarly interest and labor. The question remains: will the works cited above be incorporated into traditional institutional reading lists, where new readers and writers are initiated into what is important? We know that some of this new scholarship is being taught in Women's Studies programs throughout the country, as an alternative to the status quo. At best, that leaves the situation a segregated one.

Rasula has pointed out that these "great modernist women writers" were prominent in their own day, publishing "on the order of 150 books"--making it remarkable and suspect that until the last few years these works have been unavailable to be taken seriously. If he is truly interested in encouraging further critical study of women modernists, it seems a rather shop-worn and ultimately diversionary tack for him to trot out the traditional "j'accuse," chiding feminists for ignoring their own--especially given his limited research. From whom does he think the sudden demand for reprints and critical studies of modernist women has come? Isn't it more to the point to examine the power structures underpinning the making of a canon? Would Pound's The Cantos or Eliot's Four Quartets still be read, if they hadn't been seriously and thoroughly taught? Or, turning it around, could they have been taught, if the editors of American literature textbooks and poetry anthologies--predominately male, during the '30s, '40s and '50s--hadn't chosen their work as "major"? Would younger scholars have been adding to the growing body of criticism without these texts to alert their attention? It seems easy to forget that particular individuals with concrete esthetic criteria decide what work is significant enough to sustain in print. These far-reaching judgments include personal responses of recognition and pleasure, as well as ideas of relevance and excellence. Between 1925 and 1965, who were the individual editors, publishers and critics exercising these literary choices? How many women were there, among the ranks of the powerful?

-- Kathleen Fraser

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excerpts from Lisa Pater Faranda's letter

I was moved from Niedecker's poetry to her life, a life I learned was devoted to poetry for no more important reason than survival. The principle of "enough" governed LN's vision and underlies her "condensery". . . . For Niedecker, such economy was clearly more than poetic technique; it was a physical, psychological and moral necessity. . . for the woman who had grown up on Blackhawk Island, a place intimately connected to "the soft / and serious-- / Water", writing poetry was the means to "float" or "fly", and she employed images of both to characterize the act itself. She learned to condense, to: "be alone / Throw it over--/ all fashion / feud" . . . because the poetry was enough, "enough to carry [her] thru". . . .

To many it seems as though Niedecker sacrificed much to achieve such a precious balance. Ironically, she remained isolated from the established centers of literary activity in order to write the poetry of the American idiom and modern experience. She was, nonetheless, always alert to the "fashion and feud" of the literary world; she tells Cid Corman in a letter of 12 December 1964 that when she was eighteen and still reading Wordsworth, she "was vaguely aware that the poetry current (1921) was beginning to change." She was, in fact, a contributor to such avant-garde journals as New Democracy, and contributed along with Pound and William Carlos Williams, to the first annual edition of New Directions . . . . Zukofsky first published LN in A Test of Poetry, in which he placed "There's a better shine" in the section called Recurrence. According to LN, she did not introduce herself to LZ until six months after February Poetry, (1931), when she finally worked up enough courage to write him. By this time Zukofsky was back in New York, so contrary to many people's claim, LN did not work with Bunting and Zukofsky in Madison, Wisconsin. In the letters to Cid Corman, Niedecker describes her meeting with Bunting in 1967. She saw herself "on the periphery" of the Objectivist movement, and while she maintained a warm and affectionate correspondence with Zukofsky, she developed her art on the delicate line where individual imagination and culture meet . . . .

At bottom, it is LN's ability to make me engage the words, experience syncretism and the associative power of language that I find thrilling. Her poetry makes me know, without discourse, what it is like to be alive, to feel alive:

The eye
of the leaf
into leaf
and all parts
into spine
to see

Lisa Pater Faranda has edited the complete annotated edition of The Letters of Lorine Niedecker, a selection of which appears in the Fall, 1983, issue of Conjunctions. Her introduction to that collection will appear in a future issue of Origin. Her lengthy biographical sketch of LN, containing much important information for scholars, will appear in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, (Modern American Poets volume), Fall, 1984.

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