What Good Is a Poem?: Reading Laura Riding’s Renunciation

by David Alejandro Hernandez

An author from the modernist era, Laura Riding renounced poetry after two decades of prolific production and spent the latter half of her life working through formulations of her wholesale condemnation of the art of poetry, including provocatively titled treatments such as “The Failure of Poetry” and “Truth Begins Where Poetry Ends.” This paper proposes to bring out the features and terms of her renunciation in association with problems of epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics from a small segment of the history of thought. This task itself is in the interest of valorizing, against the grain, Laura Riding’s renunciation and giving it its due as a courageous act of authorial self-invention. My conviction is that the challenge posed by Riding’s renunciation, considered both as a set of aesthetic critiques and as an act, has yet to be fully confronted by exponents of poetry’s immanent capacity for truth: poets, critics, and readers alike.

Author’s bio:
David Alejandro Hernandez is a writer and a PhD student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He holds a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.F.A. from Washington University in Saint Louis, where he also served as the 2018-2019 Senior Fellow in Poetry. His creative work has appeared in print literary journals such as FenceOversound, and the Berkeley Poetry Review, among others; and online for Burning House PressApartment PoetryDIALOGISTOmniVerse, and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s 100 Boots Poetry Series. David’s current research focuses broadly on issues in aesthetics, hermeneutics, and the history of philosophy.

Registered attendees received access to the video presentation and shared questions and comments below.

4 replies on “What Good Is a Poem?: Reading Laura Riding’s Renunciation”

Hi David! Thank you for your carefully written and fascinating paper, and thank you also for the video presentation where you presented your research very clearly, calmly, and beautifully.

I was especially fascinated by the way you examined the narrative and challenged the narration of Laura Riding. As you beautifully wrote, Riding’s identity has been formulated as a poet for a long time and you argued convincingly why Riding should be characterized rather as a critical thinker (or even philosopher/philosophical thinker?). As you write in the page 3, “rather than being “poet”, the majority of her life was spent against writing poetry and devoted, instead, to living out her renunciation of it”. This is something that could have been contextualized a little more with traditional historical methods: Why did she abandon her career as a poet? Why did she come back with her “renunciation”? In this way, your insightful interpretations of her “renunciation” and references with Socrates and Popper would perhaps opened a little better for a reader who is not familiar with Laura Riding or the historical context of 1920-1940’s atmosphere in the first place. However, you stressed on nicely (contrasting it sharply with Riding’s own work) how your analysis is not a literary critic but rather facing a philosophical, epistemological, and hermeneutical question on the way Riding’s work and her identity can be viewed. As I see it, this also touches upon the ethical response of a historian: it is a great responsibility of a historian not to judge or depict one’s life only based on one or even several moments of a person’s life but rather examine with a open mind the reasons why a person did what (here) she did and how (here) she herself saw the significance of her actions. I agree that framing Riding’s “renunciation” as a poetic (and rightly political) act is a great conceptual choice. I would then ask you, what exactly was this “renunciation” or how you would describe it as a concept in your research? This is something you talk about and around in your paper but that could be addressed even more clearly in my mind.

Thank you for letting us read your paper, wonderful job!

Thank you for such a thought-provoking paper, David! Your idea of “expansive hermeneutics” in the sense of focusing not only on texts but also on the trajectory of a life (or a collective biography?) is very interesting. I think that your insight is a potentially fruitful window to rethink what counts -or not- as “context” or a “speech act” for intellectual historians. However, I also think that Lotta has a point. Since you’re assessing Riding’s thought beyond and against poetry, some relations to extra-linguistic context could have strengthened your argument. In any case, I also found Riding’s Rational Meaning truly fascinating. It would be great if you could expand a bit more on the book’s main arguments, structure and describing it a bit further as a source of interest in itself.

I also found very stimulating your reference to the “ancient quarrel” relation between poetry and philosophy (p. 10). In my view, there is another factor that could be considered here. (This is another strong connection between our papers). I’m thinking of Aristotle’s Poetics, where he compared philosophy and poetry with history (i.e., contingency and particularity). This comparison is a fundamental part of the equation in Western hierarchies of different kinds of knowledge according to their “degree” of “rationality” and “universality.” Historical discourse has usually been depicted as different to poetry and opposite to philosophy. But it has also been used as a means to articulate the relation of “thought” and “place.” And, more importantly, to harmonize the relation between a thinker’s personal life and oeuvre. This is what I tried to show that Sarmiento was searching for when experimenting with the philosophy of history; he was collapsing the boundaries between history, poetry and philosophy in search of what he regarded as a “genuine” cultural identity.

In this regard, I’m wondering if Riding’s heroic renunciation to poetry could also be read, to some extent, as a “confession” of alienation regarding her own historical circumstances? I’m asking this because of Riding’s claim that “language is the link of meaning that human life has with the fact of existence” (p. 17) and considering her criticism of philosophy for “stopping time” even though “the voice of a philosopher is always the voice of a time” (footnote 33). To phrase my question more broadly, could her criticism be directed to 20th-century poetry at large but not necessarily to other historical periods and contexts?

I must say that I really liked your writing!

Hi David, thank you for presenting such a fascinating topic! I am in no sense well-versed in philosophy or Anglophone poetry, nonetheless, I found your research very engaging and thought-provoking.

As I understood from your research, Laura Riding saw poetry as tainted by its aesthetic appeal, because the craft of poetry distorted the natural property of language, which was to tell the truth. I am curious about how you, in the view of Riding, define the concept of this “truth.” It seems to me that Riding first devoted herself to and later gave up the art of poetry all to strive for this absolute truth. Does this mean she initially saw poetry as a means of truth-telling? I think in some way, many other fields such as religion, science, or history all seek to tell the truth. Do you happen to know what she thought of these other means to the end?

My second question might be slightly out of left field, but it also resonates with what Lotta and Pablo said about historical context: some simple googling told me that Riding was a Jewish immigrant and spent significant time residing in Europe before her renunciation in 1941. I am therefore wondering if the Holocaust had any impact on her decision to renounce poetry, as Adorno also famously raised the doubt about writing lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Did Laura Riding ever address this issue? I am contemplating what you said about how she considered human reasons combined with the proper use of language can lead to truth and the justification of human living. Taking into account the timing of her renunciation, such an unprecedented abuse of human lives based on irrational logic that was institutionally rationalized could perhaps provide some broader context for her loss of hope in poetry.

All in all, it was a pleasure reading your paper. One could really tell you are a writer yourself!

Hi David! Thank you so much for your paper and presentation; your theme is really fascinating and got me thinking about lots of different issues.

I totally agree with Pablo—perhaps the most intriguing aspect of your paper, from my point of view, is your decision to treat an act or a life choice as a source for intellectual history. At least in the UK, there is a tendency amongst intellectual historians to follow the approach to historical sources formulated by Quentin Skinner, whereby texts are interpreted as interventions (or speech-acts) in debates and the role of the historian is to uncover what an author was doing in writing/voicing an utterance. This has arguably often led to a close focus on texts at the expense of biographical context (perhaps in part because of the Skinnerian scepticism about the possibility of uncovering individual motives). It seems to me that your paper points to interesting ways in which we might expand our traditional understanding of what counts as a speech-act to include not merely non-textual sources, but even biographical events and lived experiences. Would be great to talk more about this!

A second theme on which I would love to hear your further thoughts, again, is that of the relationship between poetry and philosophy. You seem to imply a distinction between poet/author and philosopher—but is this distinction so obvious? What about poetry as a vehicle for philosophical messages (rather than an expression of inspiration)? I guess this question stems out of my more general interest in the role of literary sources (poetry, narrative fictions etc., as opposed to more conventional and straightforward sources such as treatises or essays) in the history of ideas.

My third question is one of clarification, and probably is a product of my own ignorance of the context/background of Riding’s work. In your account, Riding seems to operate on the assumption that the self-declared goal of poetry is truth—but of course this is only one possible reading of the significance of poetry (you give the alternative example of Lyn Hejinian, who thinks that poetry should offer not truth, but ‘an experience of contradictions and incommensurabilities’). Where is this obsession with truth as the failed goal of poetry come from? Does Riding ever discuss alternatives?

Fourth—a really minor point, again of clarification. You write: ‘The urgent question for Socrates, as for Laura Riding, is, Does the poet speak for (because of) another, or for (as) herself? On this question rests whether any poet can be said to offer genuine wisdom—wisdom she herself possesses—or the counterfeit of wisdom. The poet, not wielding wisdom but only serving as potential vessel for it, could hardly tell the difference, for herself. She may be none the wiser’—is wisdom any less genuine when one does not possess it oneself? Surely the poet might relay an actual truth without personally knowing/understanding it?

Anyway, thanks again for such a stimulating piece, and look forward to discussion!

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