How to Do Things With Words: Reading Riding's and Retallack's Poethics

by Elizabeth Savage


"No one seems to realize that the destruction of poetry as a tradition would not destroy poetry itself." Laura Riding, Contemporaries and Snobs

"‘[Riding’s] objective in poetry may be said to have gone beyond the poetic as a literary category and reached into the field of the general human way of speaking . . .’" Laura (Riding) Jackson, writing of herself, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words

"It is like this. We are looking for changing. We are joining things. We join our narrative to other narratives, the narratives of prose or poetry or articles in Scientific American. We join our loves and others. We join relations. As a result we are trying to write an article, a piece called literary criticism about joining because in literary criticism we take a piece of something, take fragments, and string them together with our own commentary or commentary that is in reaction to something else. The commentary is designed to be narrative so as to cover up the fragmentary nature of quotation. This is the way it is with thinking, with gendering, with joining. Forms can carry all ethical positions, like people, all the positions, all the meetings and dividings. We are transition work." Juliana Spahr, Spiderwasp or Literary Criticism

"And so I say, not within the suppositious contexts of religion but within the personally actual contexts of poetry: literally, literally, literally, without gloss, without gloss, without gloss. So read, so exist: with your very best reasons. Any other reasons are not reasons, or no longer reasons--mere compulsions from without, or mere glosses upon nightmares long ago ridden off the map of experience.

It is less difficult to read or exist well than to read or exist ill." Laura Riding, "Original 1938 Preface TO THE READER" from The Poems of Laura Riding

"It is time then to make a fresh start on the problem. We want to reconsider more generally the senses in which to say something may be to do something . . . " J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (first epigraph of Joan Retallack's How To Do Things With Words)

In a 1993 graduate seminar on women modernists, I became first acquainted with Laura Riding's poetry and began immediately to write about her. In part, Riding's poetry itself motivated me to write as a way of entering into her poetics that, in some poems, manage at once to leave much of the page's space open and to generate the sense that, despite the small, ordinary nouns and articles comprising the poem, the page nearly snaps under its pressure. More imperative, though, was my desire to figure out how Riding's poems took forms conventional in meter, subject, and lyric ties and stuffed them with words that defied the narratives the formal aspects invoked. Most of all, I hurried to write about Riding to defend her work from scholars and poets who insisted that her "failed" quest for truth was intellectually overwrought, anti-feminist, anti-woman, boring, overrated, and, the ultimate kiss of death, utopic. (Utopia: Love it or leave it!)

Ultimately, I wrote a dissertation chapter on Riding that located her in an ongoing conversation among women poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, converted my director to Riding advocacy, and demonstrated the ways in which her poetics refute the opposition of "expressive" and "experimental" in critical discourses. This false dichotomy of "lyric" and "language-oriented" poetry, though showing signs of diminishing force in feminist criticism, continues to dominate evaluations of women's poetry: Proponents of "experimental" writing argue that "language-centered" poetry abandons the lyric "I" constituted in referential language in favor of a multifarious, intellectual voice always in the process of becoming and thus able to slip the yoke of gender essentialism. On the other side of the argument, advocates of "expressive" poetry--Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich are often called upon as examples--recognize a continuing need for an intelligible female voice to authenticate woman's experiences and, thus documenting them, encourage social practices that change the way gender functions in the real world. Riding's poetics continue to provide ways of seeing that this mutually exclusive understanding of the lyric and language poetry is a self-defeating fiction, just as her work destabilizes the essentialist/constructivist binary. To recover Riding for American poetry and for feminist poetics, I had, in part, to locate her work among the very discourses her poetics obviate.

To complete a dissertation, one must be consistent and coherent: to assert as worthwhile a complicated poet derided and repeatedly dismissed because she was ungrateful and ungracious with those who (over)valued her work, one must give readings of her works that track their meanings coherently and refute the dismissive evaluations. In reading Riding's poems as part of her body of linguistic and feminist theory, the cornerstone of which is the faith that true language incurs true gender relations by accessing woman's difference, I avoided making messes of Riding's logic or of mine. My goal then was to clean up the messes making up Riding scholarship--and the lack thereof. The main mess I sought to clean up was the assumption that Riding thought women ought to be silent, just as Riding had chosen "silence" by renouncing poetry as a means to truth.

My soundest evidence that Riding's "silence" was a misconception largely responsible for the many misreadings of her poetry presented itself in a recently published collection of resurrected essays by Riding entitled The Word Woman. Included in the book is a 1963 questionnaire for the Italian magazine Civilta delle Macchine, which sought the opinions of women who had "attained the highest ranks in their profession" on the "problem" of "the fuller and progressive participation of women in societal life" (177), followed by Riding's response. Riding scolds Dr. Giuliana Zavadini for her questionnaire which was and would remain moot, in Riding's view, until societal and linguistic structures were confronted with "a new scrupulousness in our linguistic functioning, [a scrupulousness that] puts our every attitude of mind to the tests of human soundness that words alone can surely make" (WW 173, 180). Riding concludes that "it is from dualism, precisely, that human nature needs saving" and that men and women must take the initiative to reconceive "all their being" (182). Written in her sixties, Riding's reading of the questionnaire as an example of the "sexually confused linguistic humanism" her poetics had endeavored to change by preparing a "new human speaking-ground" (179) provided for me proof positive that Riding did not advocate silence. To the contrary, she clearly maintained that language use affected conditions and consequences in the real world. Riding thought saying something was doing something.

In moments that helped condemn her work as moot for both feminism and for poetry, Riding's poems often examine the unsaid, the yet-to-be said, and the unspeakable as full of potential to alter the world. Or this is how I have read those silences, as ripe and powerful with the possibilities of words on a path towards expression. Silence is resistance because it is a refusal to participate actively in oppressive paradigms. But reticence does not preclude collusion and is easily coopted by--or simply cooperates with--the forces it seeks to undermine. One such troublesome silence circulates through Riding’s poem "Chloe Or," which begins with a sardonic speaker's identification of its subjects with the words they have not said and probably will not say:

Chloe or her modern sister, Lil,
Stepping one day over the fatal sill,
Will say quietly: 'Behold the waiting equipage!'
Or whistle Hello and end an age. (PLR 29)

Joined by their "immortal," ahistorical existence in male-defined scripts and their performances for exclusively male audiences, The True Woman and the New Woman live the same way, despite Lil's nominal difference from Chloe. This immortality, as the poem suggests, lies in their cooperation with universal (and thus eternal) narratives of desire in which their meaning is determined by male attention and approval, not their own, differing values or desires. I argued that Riding's poem exposed the women's concealment under their socially expected roles as a deliberate choice and that, in exchange for meeting outwardly the expectations of the male eye, Chloe and Lil gained access to literary and historical narratives that their silences could confuse and perhaps burst with the unspoken. Their refusal to overstep "the fatal sill" and comment openly on the artificiality of the narratives in which they live affords them an inscrutable existence that keeps Death, another male suitor, "like all the others, guessing." Like Irigaray's idea of mimicry, I argued, Chloe and Lil's knowingly exaggerated embrace of their roles wordlessly subverts the very scripts they enact.

As the high-modernist scripts directing their identities dictate, women stand opposed to true culture or become disembodied as artistic muses. In a typical Riding paradox, Chloe and Lil’s "refus[al] to see anything distressing" in their social-historical situation both confirms modernism’s narrow categories for femininity and thwarts the modernist quest to illustrate the spiritual ruin effected by the industrial, consumer age. Chloe and Lil decline to acknowledge the decay of culture they are supposed to represent and their (implied) appropriation of sanctioned emotional scripts for women positions them uncertainly in the discourses defining them, leaving a dangerous opening for other meanings to invade. As in much of Riding’s poetry that specifically questions woman’s representation while taking the position of extreme advocation (without conceding to parody), "Chloe Or" exposes the irreconcilable valuations of woman’s situation in masculine narratives of Being: While Chloe and Lil have the power to shatter their images (and with them, the structures of meaning dependent upon those images), the costume of their false womanhood serves as a shield to their realization of or desire for that shattering.

I realize now that my focus on explaining why Chloe and Lil did not break their silence and "end an age" so obviously damaging to women had everything to do with my need to claim for Riding a self-awareness in her use of sanctioned poetic forms, a self-consciousness that turned the gender politics of modernism against themselves. Like Chloe and Lil's silence, Riding's employment of traditional form did not signal submission but a strategy to infiltrate male territory whose forms intended to contain woman's presence or keep her out actively. In linking Riding's ostensible submission to conventional rhyme, stanzas, and line breaks with the un-sounding chosen by Chloe and Lil, I reestablished the poetic borders Riding's disjunct images and spare, insistent syntax had begun to erode. I read the silence in "Chloe Or" under the teleological lens of "why?" The reading I produced excluded the untoward interpretations of Riding's silence as anti-woman and put a dent in critical assessments of her poetry as an arduous progression towards poetic failure manifest most obviously in Riding's own "silence."

In her essay ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds)" Joan Retallack suggests:

"[L]et's think of how we can amplify the knowledge of/ in our silence, our not so much nonsense as additional or other sense, our improbabilities, our unintelligabilities...creating new forms of intelligibility."

Under the heading "PROCEDURAL NOTES," which comes near the end of her How to Do Things With Words, Joan Retallack comments briefly that the poem "Not a Cage" "is composed from the beginnings and endings of books [she] was culling from [her] library in the Fall of 1990" (156). Having, for once, read the book without looking ahead to see how it turned out, I was pleased to learn what system had produced the poem's lines that invoked a variety of generic voices and narrative scraps that sometimes battled, sometimes complemented the lines surrounding them. Not once did it occur to me to ask why Retallack had chosen to eliminate certain books from her library or to explain why she used the vaguely violent word "culled" to describe the selection process. Instead, I considered the brilliant way in which Retallack had converted waste or excess (whatever determined the books' removal) into creation, elimination into presence, housekeeping into poetry. The poem, made up of the ends of discarded books, dilates and contracts among disparate discourses--stage directions, footnote references, ominous hints of political insurgents, bits of letters. The silences on either side of these textual "ends" are foregrounded by the abrupt way lines emerge out of unknown contexts and are cut off in mid-thought, mid-narrative. They carry forward then quickly recall the narratives so easily summoned by even the most syntactically alienated word or the most subtle grammatical rhythm. Read in combinations suggested only by proximity and my (willing or unwilling) craving for familiar syntactical patterns, some lines produce a recognizably private, lyric voice, as in the following:

We named you I thought the earth
is possible I could not tell
to make live and conscious history in common
and wake you find yourself among
and wake up deep in the fruit (27-28)

Reading Retallack, I am constantly aware of how I am seeing, how I make up patterns out of glimpses of sentences and piece them into narratives so dependent on my provisional choices as reader that I can easily forget the stories and images I've applied to certain lines from one reading to the next--or remember and reconstruct them into different combinations. Retallack's "poethics" invites the reader to "foregroun[d] the arts as, rather than about, forms of engaged living in medias mess" with forms that "let the mess shine in" ("Wager" 293). Poethics, or ethics as poetry, extends an invitation to the reader to create the poem's meaning. Taking the "poethical wager" includes also a responsibility--and opportunity--to consider the aesthetic, political, and personal directions my reading process takes "within the personally actual contexts of poetry: literally, literally, literally, without gloss, without gloss, without gloss."

What about Retallack's poetry--and the poetry of Gertrude Stein, George Oppen, Susan Howe, Mina Loy--precludes my readerly impulse towards the "why," the gloss, the unwitting separation of the world into the "literal" and the "real," which always requires a transcription of the poem into language of the what and the why? Why do I read some writers certain that the imposition of a narrative that makes "sense" out of its words and its silences would be both absurd and violent and others, like Riding, into explanations?

Elsewhere in Retallack's How To Do Things with Words appears the possible unpunctuated question, "how not to inscribe yourself in the system you're opposing / opposing opposable thumbs up to a point of no turn no / not the turn to oppose to it all" (64). Attention to the site of (some) writing, the thumb and forefinger, flickers here and throughout the book and attends the recurring issue of un-doing / un-saying: . . . one might

be moved to ask just what is the Greek word for unnailing
i.e. quite specifically removal of Christ from
the cross there will always be many other specialized vo-
cabularies . . . (88)

This question, suppressed (but retrievable) by its speculative conditional mood, I read attached to the indicative statement "More Orientalism: the Japanese say mu to unask the question" (18) and the implied contradiction observed between them in the book's pages that "while the Chinese have divided parts of the body differently/ from us with a word for the area between thumb and fore-/finger the ideogram for woman, , is a kneeling person" (73).

Is it possible to "unask" anything? Is there a way to erase the traces of a question, whether it demands an answer, or many, or not? To unsay anything? To unnail Christ? To redirect the curving "u" of the writing hand from its path to woman submitting, kneeling at the cross and eschatological narratives? What reverberations might reconnecting the nails of the cross to those on the fingers entail? And if it were possible to un-do, un-know, un-say, what different silences might their un-sounding create?

Retallack's poethics lead me to reassess the ways in which form encourages readings that open meanings (as with Retallack) or that capture them (as in the case of Riding) and to reconsider the function(s) of silence, announced or implicit. The silence following the "Or" of Riding's title, for example, cracks open the dualistic logic that views Chloe and Lil as interchangeable as it comments on it. Choosing to read Riding as I read Retallack, to swerve away from "why" and into "how," the many, conflicting silences of Riding's poetry--"between, after, even within the words"--become audible, and I begin to participate more actively in the formal experimentalism of writers, like Retallack, whose work teaches, as it demonstrates, ways of reading the un-asked, un-said, un-noticed in all forms of writing ("Wager" 295). Poethical practice means a deliberate abandonment of centralized authority over the poem's meaning: in the protean reading strategy proposed by Retallack, writing and reading are inseparable acts that re-value by retaining the radicality of any poem because it is always already new, never finished. Retallack's poethics give me a way of saying what I already know: that every act of reading changes what I read--that there is no reading that does not take place through other writings that are themselves readings. That poetic lineages are always running both ways and in many directions at once. Let the mess shine in.

Reading Riding the way I read Retallack will be a move away from the opposing criteria of (high) modernism and new criticism to un-limiting, opposable (but not necessarily oppositional) codes "both rational and arbitrary" of poethical criticism (73). To (re)read Riding poethically, suspending the assumption that the poem has one meaning a skilled reader can gather up and transport to the next, requires unlearning a great deal about literary criticism--especially for someone who has never before used "I" in a critical paper. Can I un-learn? If "every form--old or new--has its poethical matrices and consequences" ("Wager" 302), can the orderly "I-less"ness of academic critical forms render legible (without neutralizing) the transformative powers of feminist poethics? And finally, what might this abdication mean in the classroom, so often caught in the loop of accismus wherein teachers at first pretend not to have but ultimately produce the secret decoder ring that unlocks the poem's meaning? Instead of negating the professorial function that new criticism legitimized, could the newly-reconsidered importance of the reader's actions not provide the best rationale of all for creating highly skilled readers?

Works Cited

Jackson, Laura (Riding). The Poems of Laura Riding. New York: Persea Books, 1938, 1980.

---. and Schuyler B. Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Defininition of Words and Supplementary Essays. Ed. William Harmon. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997.

---. The Word Woman and Other Related Writings. New York: Persea Books, Inc., 1993.

Perloff, Marjorie. "The Witch of Truth." Parnassus 23.1-2(1998): 334-53.

Retallack, Joan. How to Do Things with Words. LA: Sun & Moon, 1998.

---. "The Poethical Wager." Onward: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Peter Baker. NY: Peter Lang, 1996. 293-306.

---. ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds)." Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Eds. Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. 344-77.

Riding, Laura. Contemporaries and Snobs. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1928.

Spahr, Juliana. Spiderwasp or Literary Criticism. NY: Spectacular Books, 1998.

BIO: Elizabeth Savage teaches American Literature and Women's Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She was recently awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship for poetry by the Virginia Commission for the Arts.


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