Contemporaries and Snobs. Laura Riding. Edited by Laura Heffernan and Jane Malcolm. University of Alabama Press, 2014
“In theory, poetry has officially passed” (40). So proclaims Laura Riding in her opening essay to Contemporaries and Snobs, “Poetry and the Literary Universe.” Originally published in 1928, this new edition, edited by Laura Heffernan and Jane Malcolm, and republished by the University of Alabama Press, gathers three essays by a largely overlooked modernist critic and poet. Riding’s polemical proclamation—one that is not at all far from the often heard chant “poetry is dead”—rests less on a view of public incapacity, disinterest, or indifference, or even a seeming degradation of poetic quality, than on the observation that criticism itself has sought to dictate what poetry is and in doing so has displaced it. “A new universe without poetry might be expected,” Riding writes, “But instead a new criticism arises to proclaim poetry because there is no poetry, a criticism which shares the universe’s atavistic hunger for poetry” (40). Indeed, throughout the work Riding seems to be tacitly moving between certain poetic forms as failed cultural objects because of critical interventions and a poetry that is yet to come, incessantly desired, and on the cusp of its awakening. As Riding writes:
The truth is that critical modernism is really more interested in maintaining a defensive attitude toward the literary past than in sponsoring “new poetry.” It equivocates between an unreserved adherence to poetic formalism and an unreserved disavowal of poetic formalism. It outformalizes formalism and thus has a ready snobbism to employ against formalism or irregularity, as may be required. (4)
Writing just over 85 years before our own critical junctures of poetic production in an age of technological prowess, self-publishing, buy-in anthologies, digital poetics, machinic reading, reading machines, and information recycling—speaking largely to persistent anxieties about hermeneutics, authorial integrity, and textual production—Riding’s critical commentaries about poetry during her own time unsurprisingly reverberate with our own contemporary concerns.
In their introduction to Contemporaries Laura Heffernan and Jane Malcolm argue that Riding “offers a counter history of the idiosyncratic, of what the institution of modernism left (and leaves) behind […] champion[ing] the non-canonical, the ‘barbaric,’ and the under-theorized” (ix). Indeed, “barbarism” remains one of the focal points of Riding’s critical remarks, taking shape in the second essay, “T.E. Hulme, the New Barbarism, and Gertrude Stein.” Heffernan and Malcolm argue that Contemporaries diverges from Riding’s initial foray into modernist criticism in A Survey of Modernist Poetry. Whereas the latter deployed close readings and meditated upon the relationship between public and private poetics of the high modernist era, the former turns to a “multicentury view of modernism’s development” (Heffernan and Malcolm xii), critical of those writers who set out to theorize and systematize poetry and poetics.
Heffernan and Malcolm identify Riding’s peculiar insistence on the poetics of the “person,” yet Riding’s style is totally evacuated of any kind of proximity that such a poetics would suggest. Considering the ways in which maleness—and what Rachel Blau DuPlessis has called in Purple Passages “male poetic power” (3)—were operating amongst her contemporaries, Riding’s prosaic stance of detachment and impersonality was most probably intentionally assumed not as an act of post-binarist or post-gender feminism, nor as a disavowal of feminist concerns. Rather, Riding understood the inner workings of the masculine machinery of poetics and poetic networks of social relations of her time. As DuPlessis writes:
The production of masculinity is everywhere, and almost everywhere it is invisible. Despite important social and literary studies of male subjectivity in past years, unless one is deliberately talking about gender it is still commonplace in viewing artworks by male writers to treat them as ungendered and universal in stance and not explicitly commenting on gender materials or ideologies. (18)
Amusingly, Heffernan and Malcolm note that “Riding refers to Eliot, Joyce, and Co. collectively as ‘ladies’ precisely because they ‘avoid the temptations of sentimentality inherent in the poetic faculty’ and thus reject the humanity inherent in their medium, language” (xvii). In this inverted gendered commentary, Riding, still holding on to some sense of gender stereotypes, basically calls out Eliot et al. on their inability to “man up” and face their emotions. More importantly, however, by choosing to take on the assumed universal poetico-critical power with an equally assumed universal logic and its rationalist overtones, Riding champions critical invectiveness by responding in kind.
Riding’s stake in the “personal” might seem totally misplaced when we consider how her writing lacks any sort of intimacy, sensual affect, or particularity that one might expect from a “poetics of the person”. By contrast, Riding’s stylistic choices might seem to corroborate with the very kind of universalisms DuPlessis attributes to male modernisms. Arguably, such a critical stance straddles those gendered stereotypes which may attend reading “personal” with the “feminine.”
Riding’s terse prose speaks to a universalism as an absolute criticism of non-criticism that seeks not to displace already problematic critical views with a new dogma. For cert, Riding is too intelligent for that. As Heffernan and Malcolm argue:
Riding’s ironic use of gender demonstrates the depth of her scorn for the calculated modernist (im)persona, even as it suggests that we should understand her reclamation of the poet as person not as the romantic agenda of an iconoclast woman modernist, but as the cornerstone of a grittier, more authentic, and truly hard (both difficult and obdurate) poetics in and of the modernist moment. (xvii)
Peculiarly, whatever Riding’s conception of a “poetics of the person” is seems to be accessible only through poetry. Clearly, Riding is interested in a kind of critical distillation in which the poetic (what that is for Riding is unclear for she will not say for fear of being authoritarian) is distinguished from poetry, in addition to the removal of critical interruptions. “Criticism has a great deal to say about criticism,” Riding writes,
which means that it is highly philosophical. But as it has very little that is relevant and helpful to say about poetry itself—not as a philosophical abstraction but as poems—criticism becomes, in practice, highly philosophical nonsense. (69)
Moreover, despite the kinds of generic and technical opportunities that the novel may present, Riding is unabashedly anti-fiction. To quote Riding at length:
Criticism and creation do not face the same way, but face each other, criticism forgoing creation in order to be able to describe it. This purpose demands learning in criticism, because it is the author not of one poem, let us say, but of the history of one poem and the other and another (since when face to face with one poem the critic sees many others as well); but it does not mean that criticism may be substituted for creation, as would follow if that “ancient classification” were really invalidated. The novel perhaps shows the danger of such a substitution more clearly than any other kind of writing, being avowedly critical rather than creative, historical rather than poetic: it is a description of poetic reality by contemporary reality. Wherever the novel tries to create poetic values, it becomes false art, as with Proust, Joyce, Virginia Woolf and such American poetic novelists as Waldo Frank and Sherwood Anderson. (27)
Following such critical disarmaments and dagger-like prose are also hilarious jabs at her modernist “snobs.” Occasionally populating her dense and assertive prose are aphoristic gems such as:
Analogy is always false, but it is the strongest philosophical instrument of co-ordination. (65)
Whether or not Hulme formally inaugurated the new barbarism in contemporary criticism is a fine and irrelevant point of history. (68)
Classical art is therefore created to satisfy a desire for gloom which is really, however, a snobbish feeling about romantic gloom. (75)
In retrospect, Riding’s work seems to anticipate not only feminist but sociological, new historical, cultural materialist, and critical paradigms. Indeed, Riding had been attuned to the social and historical forces that were effecting poetry during her time—what she calls “historical effort” (52); perhaps a lone voice, yet unfortunately forgotten as modernist criticism attempted to celebrate the so-called “genius” of high modernism, which, as increasing scholarship has shown, was merely the textual products of those who knew who to know and knew how to know them. Such a paradigmatic shift in modernist studies is noted in the shift from Modernism to modernisms—attending to forgotten or lost texts, neglected texts, writers of colour, women writers, international modernisms, along with the necessary intersectional praxis of race, gender, and sexual relations within an Anglo-American and global context.
Riding’s second essay, “T.E. Hulme, the New Barbarism, and Gertrude Stein,” first published as “The New Barbarism and Gertrude Stein” in the June 1927 issue of transition, borrows “barbarism” from Eliot’s denigration of Stein’s writing whilst still maintaining a racist logic in its attempt to take up barbarism in the positive. Eliot writes that
Stein’s work is not improving, it is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one’s mind. But its rhythms have peculiar hypnotic power not met with before. It has a kinship with the saxophone. If this is the future, then the future is, as it very likely is, of the barbarians. But this is the future in which we ought not to be interested. (qtd. in Heffernan and Malcolm xix)
Interestingly, Eliot’s claim that Stein’s bad writing has “kinship with the saxophone” and correlates with the future of the barbarians might need unpacking as some critics have explored the relationship between Eliot’s poetics and jazz, among other popular cultural forms.
Aside from the racializing logic that equates bad writing with the saxophone—and by extension black cultural production—Riding, too, returns to a primitivist logic in hailing “intellectual barbarism” as a necessary poetics for her time. “[N]o one but Miss Stein has been willing to be as ordinary,” Riding writes, “as simple, as primitive, as stupid, as barbaric, as successful as barbarism demands [by doing] what everyone else has been ashamed to do” (78). Furthermore, “This new intellectual barbarism must, of course,” Riding writes, “differ from a natural historical barbarism. In the latter, mass-time and mass-humanity are real and automatically fixed and absolute, so that the poet is free of any conscious effort to construe his time.” (60)
Problematically, Riding’s relationship to “barbarism” still falls into Western popular imaginations of primitive amorphousness and the individuality of the modern European subject. There is certainly ample room for critical intervention to examine the ways in which barbarism is deployed as poetic prowess.
In Survey, Riding remarks that “the modernist poet means to keep the public out” (10). Such a statement seems wildly ironic given Riding’s own critical and hermeneutical demands, what Heffernan and Malcolm call “truly hard (both difficult and obdurate)” (xvii). Thus, to understand Riding’s style as both an intentional adoption of the very critical tones she was against and as a new kind of “truly hard” modernist aesthetic, we might begin by peeling back the layers of what only seems to glimmer between Riding’s densely lyrical form. For all of Riding’s anti-history and anti-philosophy, something else seems to lurk underneath the obdurate:
What is being fed to poetry now is the dregs of what poetry itself has produced, and produced long ago. Or, let us not say poetry, since it is a word spoiled by self-abuse. More specifically: science or any similar fetish of the concrete intelligence is a mere by-the-way of the suggestive intelligence, or intellect, a digression that becomes more and more irrelevant and wanting in meaning as it treats itself as a whole instead of as an enlarged incident of the suggestive intelligence. (34)
Here, Riding descries scientific rationalism, which had infused certain poetics of her time, and gestures towards “an enlarged incident of the suggestive intelligence.” What Riding sees in the application of scientific method to poetic praxis is the examination of poetry, its slicing it up, coring, exhuming, dissecting, and judging with incisive prose. Ultimately, Riding’s horizon for poetry and the poetic is an optimistic futural gaze. For Riding, critical modernism has had a “negative influence” since “it is a professional, critical self-consciousness, not a creative one” (54). Critical modes, or what Riding calls “social sentiment”, seems to move and invent poetry from one historical period into a new one:
What causes change, then, in the official inspiration of poetry is usually not a revolt on the part of poetry itself against the tyranny of social sentiment, but the absorption of poetry by a new social sentiment. … Literature, poetry in particular, is in this way an instrument for dramatizing the historical conflict between an old and a new. (36)
This new edition of Contemporaries, with a helpful critical introduction by Heffernan and Malcolm, marks both recuperative modernist scholarship and new critical and theoretical strides in modernist studies. Contemporaries provides a revitalized insight into different critical modes of the early 20th century that run counter to canonical interpretations and receptions of so-called canonical works of the high modernist era. Contemporaries provides alternative critical insights that resonate with increasing modernist scholarship on gender and social power, circulation, material culture, and could theoretically illuminate burgeoning studies linking modernist criticism and digital humanities.
Riding’s critical observations about the social strata of the early 20th century also return the poem and the poet to a more sacred position of authoritative value. “The poem cannot be absolute unless it belongs to itself,” Riding writes,
and it cannot belong to itself unless the poet belongs to himself. The poet, then, is the true companion absolute of the poetic absolute, which in this light acquires a simpler and more explicit critical character: it is the goodness of a poem without regard to its supplementary experience-value to the poet. But for a poem to be free of the necessity to provide experience-value the poet must have no poetic prejudice toward actual experience. (17)
Amidst all of Riding’s terse analytics, jabs at snobs, and logical mysticism the desire for the “goodness of a poem” should not be forgotten—not only in Riding’s critical endeavours but our own. Riding reminds us, after all, that our aim is poetry.
 David Chinitz, T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide (2003); Michael North, Reading, 1922 (1999).
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the End of Patriarchal Poetry. Iowa: U of Iowa P, 2012.
Riding, Laura. Contemporaries and Snobs. Eds. Laura Heffernan and Jane Malcolm. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2014.
—. “The Troubles of a Book.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2003.
Prathna Lor is a doctoral student of English at the University of Toronto and holds a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.