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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: In Extremis
    she would purify the sentence if the sentence failed she would purify the word All her life Riding struggled against the odds and as Baker makes clear she was seldom intimidated and never for very long Born Laura Reichenthal in New York City in 1901 she was reared in a secular culturally Jewish working class household Her father was an active socialist and she was brought up to read books and strive for an education Baker s description of this complex and fertile milieu immigrant New York and pre 1914 working class socialism is thin and cliche ridden Laura bright and always ready to seize an opportunity made her way to college where she married a young professor dare one wonder who caught whom She was already writing and marriage did not satisfy her She was now Mrs Gottschalk wife of a promising historian She sent her poems out and when a reply came she pounced on it The Fugitive magazine was run by a group of young Christian southern gentlemen who published her poems and gave her a prize She left her husband and went to join the group a move that profoundly flustered this flock of domesticated intellectuals Rebuffed but undaunted she left the Fugitives and moved to Greenwich Village Hart Crane proved friendly but unprepared for serious companionship Thus when Robert Graves wrote to her praising her poems and asking her to visit she accepted She left behind gossip and ruffled feathers She risked a great deal hoping for a new life and recognition of her gifts Her meeting with Graves was crucial Together the two produced more work of higher quality than either had produced alone Riding did win acclaim for her poetry and criticism but gossip and scandal continued to dog her British literary life was narrow and tolerance demanded a corresponding discretion Riding Graves and Graves wife Nancy Nicholson insisted on conducting their affairs in public Their emotional and sexual life was complicated More and more people got involved and the temperature rose In the spring of 1929 Laura Riding left her flat in London by the window She was followed a moment later from another window by Robert Graves Baker does a fine job of sorting out all the accounts of that awful leap and giving us as clear a picture as we are likely to get The chief result was that the event bound Graves firmly to Riding and confirmed her in megalomania Riding was now convinced that she was beyond death She took to calling herself Finality One does not I think achieve this point by slow degrees but by big jumps This kind of ego is fed by both rejection and praise Praise heats the will and rejection tempers it Riding began reasonably enough with the idea that poetry is purified speech It follows that the content of true poetry is truth How does the poet know what is true when nobody else does Remember this was the epoch of

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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: In Extremis
    or say Laura Riding is not one of those writers who makes you feel receptive and relaxed On the contrary she is a writer who seems to be going out of her way to make you as anxious and sceptical as possible Like Gertrude Stein whom she adored Riding characteristically explored complex relationships in a very simple language ordering ideas one by one and bit by para lactic bit Like Stein also she was interested in wordplay and baby talk with the result that it is often difficult to tell whether she is being very profound or just very affected This problem is compounded by the motifs Riding adopted as her signatures to a poem One of these is a certain strange bathos of both rhythm and meaning which differs from ordinary bathos in that it has a grim faced look of deliberation about it The other is a streak of apparently vulgar obviousness which again seems unusually calculated as if inserted as a dare to test how confident the reader is about his or her response One short poem from 1930 gives a flavour of the general effect The poem is called Beyond and it is reprinted here in its entirety 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 through knowing Beyond knowing beyond knowing but not mystery Not mystery but pain not plain but pain But pain beyond but here beyond Although Riding wrote this shortly after jumping out of the famous window and breaking her back the poem is completely shockingly empty of reference It is empty even of the implied reference of address Riding s work is generally like that if nothing else her poetry reminds you of how very full other writing is even at its most attenuated and austere When Gertrude Stein says that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose the mind at least has a rose to hang onto But when Laura Riding says as she does in another of her poems that Life is Life and Death is Death there is nothing there to get a grip on at all So empty of reference the words must work by structure and music by the patterns Riding can make from grammar and logic and assonance and rhythm And they do work like that sort of The relief you feel when the penny pinching vocabulary of the poem suddenly opens out into mystery is enormous and real Bui then your thirst for meaning a little quenched you are ready for another burst of tightly executed quibbles And do you get it No The poem yawns right out with the not mystery but pain not plain but pain line It is like listening to one of those difficult symphonies by some Russian composer which crash along atonally for most of the time then suddenly embarrassingly break into noises that could come straight from a Hollywood film score Then as if ashamed of its floridity the poem snaps right back shut on itself again with something that looks uncannily close to a cop out ending Or rather it is an ending that instead of allowing you to leave the poem with the sense that something has been resolved sends you straight back to the beginning to try again And again And again Every time you try it the heights and dips of potential resonance in the poem distribute themselves in much the same way And they never really get anywhere The poem is profoundly perpetually disappointing Riding herself once defined her writing as an investigation of the strange caprices of what may always be possible This is exactly what her poems are like They explore potentials rather than actualities shadows and skeletons of possible images and connections rather than images and connections achieved in themselves It is very difficult to let the unimportant remain unimportant almost impossible for people who write stories because it would sadden them to feel that their work on the material did not make it more important Riding commented in the preface to Progress of Stories a collection of prose fiction which set itself the task of writing about the unimportant in an uncompromisingly trivial way Starting at the beginning you will probably not get much pleasure out of the first stories do not be ashamed to admit it I did not mean you to Riding teasingly goes on There are on first glance two ways of explaining the mystery of the perversity of Laura Riding s poems and stories Perhaps Riding knew exactly what she was on about and just refused to express it all the way Or maybe there really was nothing clearer in Riding s mind than the disappearing thoughts which make it onto the page the writing as it exists for us is really all there is or ever was Either hypothesis can be read in a manner unflattering to the poet We like our poets at least to tender us an illusion that they are giving us their all and that the all they have to give is something worth giving in the first place Hence the view common among poetry critics that Riding was either too vain to give enough of herself to make her poetry good or else a poet who really had very little to say but who said it in an unnecessarily pretentious way But what if instead of failing as a poet Riding was actually a different sort of poet from most of them a poet intent on inscribing the experience of a particular sort of failure into her poems at the level of form This is what Riding herself suggests in one of her more directed statements a lovely grammatically fastidious snatch of verse she used to preface one of her collections I wish it were possible to speak more decisively But truly I

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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: In Extremis
    does in a poem Addresses we hear the straight talk cadences of the modern age and beyond she prefigures Sexton Piath even Berryman Father I have begun to think Come and listen at my head It is frightful like being dead and having to hide Everything in you that was once outside There were several Lauras as Ms Baker illustrates in her biography some lived some died The precocious Laura Ms Baker suggests dissolved into one of Riding s successive identities in a roundabout story of the perplexing creatures who sprang repeatedly from this woman s head Riding s mob of aliases reflected not just her marriages but also this spontaneous regeneration In the course of her life she went from Laura Reichenthal her maiden name to Laura Gottschalk to Laura Riding Gottschalk to Laura Riding to Laura Riding Jackson Hart Crane dubbed her Laura Riding Roughshod Riding had an unfortunate lifelong compulsion to explain herself She published long explications of her psycholiterary development progressive revelations that led to an official renunciation of poetry in 1941 when she declared that poetry blocked truth s ultimate verbal harmonies Perhaps the deeper sadder truth was that she had sacrificed her talent to her moral crusade Her poems filled with abstract posturings turned to linguistic curios In Laura Riding Selected Poems in Five Sets published in Britain in 1970 with a preface by the author and just reissued the poems arrangement mirrors the achronological thematic approach of Ms Baker s biography The setting is irrelevant what comes through as here from That Ancient Line is the willed diminishment of a poet s voice Indeed between Aci una Matter of Fact Was such consanguineous sympathy That the displeasure of the matronymic In the third generation of pure logic Did not detract from the authority Of this and later versions Of the original progenitive argument This hothouse style impenetrable in places also began to characterize Riding s prose which reads pretty much like a migraine Not much can excuse this style but its excesses can be understood Times were tough for women artists The gatekeepers of culture Pound and Eliot et al weren t giving passes to their female peers Like many of her modernist an the whole universe is ultimately an indoor place it is her work to bring it all indoors When woman becomes an outdoor creature either physically or intellectually she is smart or clever or interesting but she ceases to be effective she is no longer a comprehensive being And so Riding wrote In fighting for full social liberation as if it held the key for them to fullness of life and performance women are sealing themselves off from that of which they have by their woman nature pure sure sensibility The Word Woman And Other Related Writings contains the unpublished title essay written in 1933 35 when she lived with Graves as well as other essays and stories Its appendix explodes with a gale force personal commentary on The White

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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: In Extremis
    and Laura were all living in a flat in Chiswick in which free love on Shelleyan lines was the order of the day Laura was piqued at the resistance of Phibbs and to cut a very tangled story short she jumped out of an upper window followed by Robert out of a lower one Phibbs ran from the house screaming Nancy who was soon to quit Robert and leave the field clear for Laura eventually composed herself and telephoned for an ambulance The episode tailor made for Alan Ayckbourn has been described several times Until two years ago when Laura died aged 90 any reference to it in print would trigger a violent reaction from her in the form of long incomprehensible screeds threatening legal action Martin Seymour Smith who wrote a biography of Robert Graves in 1982 was deluged with Lauragrams over many months He came to the sensible conclusion that the events leading up to the jump were not really explicable Deborah Baker in what is the first biography of Laura another by Elizabeth Friedmann the authorised version is in preparation has no satisfactory explanation to offer either but she does give a full account of all the participants even those on the sidelines like Norah Phibbs s wife who was having a fling with David Bunny Garnett Whereas Seymour Smith described Laura as a witch Baker extends every inch of biographer s empathy she can to present her as a woman worthy of our admiration It is an uphill struggle made more so by the opacity of much of Laura s poetry Some of the hitherto unpublished early work recently discovered may change the picture but the mature work totally lacks the sweetness and charm of Robert s It is grimly intellectual Nor is her prose less dense smacking of Gertrude Stein without the wit But Laura was an influential critic Her and Graves s analysis of Shakespeare s sonnet 129 The expense of spirit in a waste of shame in A Survey of Modernist Poetry was a significant moment in literary criticism and is reputed to have set the young Empson off on his quest in search of poetic ambigiuty Clearly Laura possessed remarkable powers of analysis They were combined with an iron will that she used to deconstruct and reconstruct her own personality several times She was born Laura Reichenthal in 1901 to immigrant Polish New York Jews Nathan her father was a Marxist who worked for The Call a Jewish English language newspaper Laura worked hard to get to Cornell University in her teens where she met her first husband the history professor Louis Gottschalk It was as Mrs Gottschalk the young faculty wife recently arrived in Louisville Tennessee that she scored her first literary success a poem in the avant garde magazine The Fugitive That brought her into contact with the likes of Allen Tate John Crowe Ransom Donald Davidson the self styled Fugitive poets Love affairs with them saw the break up

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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: In Extremis
    public in a BBC radio broadcast in 1962 bore witness to such a confusion the last fifty years of her life most of which she spent cultivating lemons in Wabasso Florida with Schuyler Jackson who wrote that book review for Time were intermittently dedicated to expounding a doctrine of literalism in A Dictionary of Related Meanings intended to fix word meanings for good and all It was never published or even finished The political equivalent was equally ambitious Returning to England from Majorca with Graves in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Riding sought to reintegrate her poetic ideals of truthfulness with political activism A Personal Letter with a Request for a Reply was duly dispatched to 400 influential politicians and intellectuals asking what might be done to secure a peaceful civilized existence in a world which has become steadily more and more disordered In compiling the responses many of which were bemused by the letter s lofty tone Riding conceived the notion of an intellectual oligarchy to be called the Council of the Inside People which would combine her father s high minded radicalism with her own militantly reactionary feminism Beneath the Council Riding proposed a system of central distribution run by women of grace with no ulterior motives the Order of Love At a distance both projects inspire disbelief I A Richards you can t put words into strait jackets declared the dictionary intellectually bankrupt from the outset but some publishers Little Brown poets Norman Cameron Graves and friends Jacob Bronowski took it quite seriously Politically however Riding would have been wise to heed her own 1925 caution that a poet outside his poem is messianic Bound by a Covenant of Literal Morality 1938 drawn up with Graves the poet Alan Hodge his wife Beryl later Beryl Graves and others in late 1937 Laura Riding s Council of the Inside People convened on March 28 1938 Its aim was to stop the war by deciding on moral action to be taken by inside people for outside disorders and it admonished its adherents to have no seclusion with self in place or mind to which we could not admit others without guilty immodesty More ingenuous than the totalizing tone suggests one tier of government was to consist entirely of men of power who are also men of goodwill literal morality outstripped the poetic struggle to get words to conform to intention by proposing a logocracy whose verities would teach everyone How To Speak Purely In A Way To Avoid Fallacies Of Language And Mediocrity Of Thought It was a Utopian vision not a Hobbesian contract concerned with perfecting power rather than maintaining it Riding even had a blueprint for a better railway system but it was also a confusion of idea and fact Life as Northrop Frye once said imitates literature up to a point but hardly up to that point In Extremis considers the origins of this failure to keep life and work apart in terms set out by Al Alvarez s study of poetry and suicide The Savage God At the epicentre of this confusion Baker locates Riding s suicide attempt the leap from a Hammersmith flat in 1929 which broke up a menage with Robert Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson that had lasted since Riding s arrival in England three years before It was typical Baker says of the epoch s violent self destructiveness When Laura Riding s imaginative self exhausted its self generating resources her own body became the new medium of the nihilistic expression Somehow this doesn t quite convey the drama of Riding guzzling a bottle of household detergent in front of an astonished Graves and Nicholson and the Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs before jumping out of a fourth storey window More importantly it suggests exhaustion and sagging desperation where there was and continued to be death defying energy A high proportion of the unpublished First Awakenings joust with Death to prove the young author s mettle Listen for the voices to cry danger Then you may go Fly to the monster Lean to its fierce heart low Riding wanted to be confused in the world and like an uncommonly vigorous Lady of Shalott she turned from her tapestry to take the plunge Written in Urbana Illinois where Riding strained and failed to fulfil the duties of a polite young professor s wife The City of Cold Women rails against the deadly primness of Midwestern life while the thwarted poet longs for some kind of reviving defenestration The roofs of the city are a bleak mist Brooding over the sharpness beneath them Walls stroked to corner by the hands of the cold women Fireplaces for irony We shall not wonder at rimed mirrors Windows give up their secrets Not mirrors The sublime quality in this passage is not its suicidal drive but its sensuous violence Somewhat frolic somewhat fierceness and the creeping sensation that Riding is daring metaphor on the window ledge with one hand on the reader s neck Like other American poets and writers of the 1920s Hart Crane Thornton Wilder she looks over an edge or a bridge and sees frustration and ferment In common with Eliot whom she writes off in an early essay for his intellectual debauchery she observes a wasteland in which the present continuous is a vision of hell Death dropped me by mistake Into the lost isle of the living What have we done to Death Inventing dying This may be callow poetry but its confident inversions command our attention Riding could match her Poe influenced peers Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren phantasm for phantasm when it suited her marking in one poem the swift clairvoyance Of flesh translated into death before it dies The keynote sounded throughout most of her work however is not this kind of suffering suspension but rather a brute wager between poetic witness and the moment of injury or insight In The Defense a man

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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: A Blue Hand
    Ginsberg went looking for India and landed in a whole lot of what would become the American counterculture One hilarious stop on the way was Cannes during the film festival no less Another which turned depressing was with William Burroughs in Tangier But Baker dates the intellectual orgins of Ginsberg s India sojourn much of it with the beautiful drugged out Peter Orlovsky by his side to the summer of 1948 when an over age Columbia undergraduate subletting an East Harlem walk up filled with theology books he had his well known auditory hallucination of an unearthly voice reciting the William Blake poem he had been reading It was followed by a vision of the sky he would later say as the living blue hand itself Baker proposes a divine mood swing Not however that she opens the book there Constructing her narrative more in the spirit of Ginsbergian free flow with Burroughs s collage technique thrown in she begins her story near the Indian journey s end onboard a train bound for Benares and its riverside city of funeral pyres Some months earlier in Calcutta Ginsberg had learned to use such bonfires for lighting a ganja pipe and dispelling his crippling fear of death Baker tinkers with standard linearity delivering a seeming jumble of episodic sketches character snapshots historical apercus and religion lessons that nevertheless arranged chronologically almost on the sly get the story told and her essential understanding of unadorned cause and effect comes through By the late 50s Ginsberg had endured his mother s final institutionalization and ugly death his own emotional sinkholes a confounding series of sexual experiments and love affairs the highs and lows of Greenwich Village and Paris bohemia and the double edged triumph of Howl which made him both the most famous and most notorious poet in Eisenhower era America He was also experiencing poet s block He was more than ready for a global change of scene He persuaded the poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger then living in Japan to join him on the subcontinent He also had hopes that Gregory Corso Jack Kerouac Burroughs and even the communal heartthrob Neal Cassady would show up These were quickly dashed But Corso whom Baker reintroduces in old age still drug addicted peddling fake journal entries to a fellow addict working in the rare books section of a Manhattan department store made a fascinating contribution in the person of Hope Savage an ex girlfriend She Allen is our Rimbaud and more today he had written Ginsberg in 1956 Baker reconstructs Savage s evolution from rebellious Southern belle to ethereal bhang dazed erudite and enigmatic itinerant but ultimately has to let her slip away into the thin air of an existence that continued on an increasingly elusive course For an author who sporadically intimates the misogyny of the group and the period Baker is less kind to Kyger sulky in her black drip dry dress whom she largely dismisses as wanting fame on her

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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: A Blue Hand
    Also Ginsberg had a hugely eventful life with a slew of images His whole experience in India was one that emerged as quite liberating for him as he immersed himself in the country s vast polytheistic culture How much did you move around yourself while tracing the Journeys undertaken Most of my research was undertaken at The Ginsberg Archive at Stanford University the New York Public Library with a couple of journeys that I took to interview people like Joanne Kyger one of the group of Beats and a poet in her own right In India especially in Calcutta and Varanasi I retraced Ginsberg s footsteps down to the exact spot and visited places I had never thought I would I visited Nimtala burning ghat in the middle of the night which has since changed with an electric crematorium but the temples and sadhus are still there I went under the Howrah Bridge and sat on the muddy steps visited the Coffee House a crumbling eating joint in the Old China Town that he frequented and his hotel room in Varanasi At one of these places I found an oldtimer who was a young boy when Ginsberg visited and even dug up some old photographs to show me The idea was to do this for myself as an obligation to Ginsberg to be able to gauge the atmosphere What about the large number of tourists who come to India to find themselves and search for meaning In exoticised India How did Ginsberg contribute to this perception Allen Ginsberg forged an American path with all the protocols of travelling cheaply and experimenting with drugs He wrote letters to his friends and publishers and word leaked out and people got to know what he was doing However he was serious about what he was here for and aware of the politics of the country Those who follow in the path of a saint are hardly ever as saintly and many of the hippie foreign tourists often end up making fools of themselves What about the figure of the female character Hope Savage in this book who is part inspiration and part legend for Ginsberg and other beats and a mysteriously elusive figure all through Hope became my own personal quest as she was this rather interesting figure who was representative of the anti Beat narrative and her mystery was the one I wanted to solve She was this woman who travelled to India and left everything behind and disappeared thus her story is one I have followed closely in the book How important was Calcutta to Ginsberg s Journey to India This was a rich time for the city culturally and extremely desperate times economically with the poets and writers struggling to be a part of the literary establishment as well as to make ends meet It was quite significant in Ginsberg s understanding of the country as he travelled across the Bengal countryside and spent time in places like the burning

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  • Deborah Baker - Reviews: A Blue Hand
    the American imagination and it just happened that Ginsberg was the perfect vehicle His letters and journals tracked his tireless search for a way out of the stifling desert of 1950s America and his effort to escape the notoriety that dogged him as the self appointed talking head of the Beat Generation and author of the epic lament Howl Yet the story could not simply follow his itinerary because his journals were littered with the dreams of the life he left behind His letters showed how much he missed his fellow beats and how important it was that they share everything he learned while on the road So even before I had begun the book I had to circle back and introduce these shadow companions One detour led to another and it took longer than I expected to get Allen to India And no sooner did he get there than I began to worry about how I would get him out How was this all going to end This worry dogged Allen too When he was able to conquer his fear of dying in India he had fantastic expectations of what he would find He didn t want to return to America the same man who left it But on his last night in India he felt he had failed I never pierced Heaven with a thought found a bearded guru in Brindaban or levitated in Bodh Gaya am I a Beat nick is that all the years have to offer No one wants to read a book that ends on a note of self pitying disappointment Allen recognised that and his plaint was excised his published journal ends just before the epiphany that did indeed transform him But I also wanted an ending that would capture the wider impact

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