Laura Riding was an artmonk

Posted by on Sep 19, 2011 in Otherhood | No Comments
Laura Riding was an artmonk


“The mercy of truth – it is to be truth.”

In reading Paul Auster’s fantastic collection of essays, The Art of Hunger, I came across Truth, Beauty, Silence, a stunning look at Laura Riding’s life and work. As the poets she influenced (Auden, Ashbery, etc.) are among my favorites, I have read a little of her work before, but Auster’s take has compelled me to look again at this enigmatic artmonk.

“The World And I”, by Laura (Riding) Jackson:

This is not exactly what I mean
Any more than the sun is the sun.
But how to mean more closely
If the sun shines but approximately?
What a world of awkwardness!
What hostile implements of sense!
Perhaps this is as close a meaning
As perhaps becomes such knowing.
Else I think the world and I
Must live together as strangers and die—
A sour love, each doubtful whether
Was ever a thing to love the other.
No, better for both to be nearly sure
Each of each—exactly where
Exactly I and exactly the world
Fail to meet by a moment, and a word.

Riding was prolific from the early 1920’s until 1938, at which point she reached, in her words, “a crisis point at which division between craft and creed reveals itself to be absolute.” She then abandoned poetry to pursue truth elsewise. A prose work published in 1967 called “The Telling” gives us an impression of what it was she had pursued in poetry that she felt she had to renounce poetry to attain.

There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. We know we are explainable, and not explained. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.

Elsewhere she writes:

To a poet the mere making of a poem can seem to solve the problem of truth…But only a problem of art is solved in poetry. Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth. Poetic art cheats truth to further and finer degrees than art of any other kind because the spoken word is its exclusive medium…

There might be a Laura Riding a the heart of every art monastery. Someone for whom the questions of art and truth are primary (e.g. “What is the value of art?”, “Is art perhaps not just a distraction from truth?”, “To make art, or not to make art? To make art or to wake up?”) would act as a necessary force of challenge to the art being made. Of course, also at the heart of every art monastery are artmonks for whom those questions are resolved already, as well as artmonks for whom there are no questions of art at all, for who there is only the making of art.

In order to make art that is art monastic art, and to make it better and better, each of these artmonk archetypes is important.

Read Auster’s essay (minus the first two pages!) here (he has another, short essay on her, “Itinerary”, if you can get your hands on it).

Read more about Riding here.

Read Marjorie Perloff’s critical essay on Riding’s language philosophy (“the Witch of Truth”) here.

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