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Telling

In response to:

The Return of Laura Riding from the August 7, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Space limitations oblige me to dispense with some of the comment that seems to me pertinent to Mr. Paul Auster’s review of two books of mine in your issue of August 7th. Communicated views of it of friends impressed on me the need of comment. One thought it “rather nice.” Another thought that the unfavorable-favorable wavering of the review established its “honesty.” Mr. Auster’s central concern is, patently to me, with his own achievement as a poet. It is in this respect that my poetic work troubles him. He balances condescension to it as not dismissible (though the work of an as-dead poet despite my “return”) against the challenge he sees in it to his own achievement. In evaluating it recently in the magazine Chelsea #33, he described a solution to this problem for disturbed poets: to transcend the offending merits of my poems. A third friend called the review condescending, which seemed mild; but it suits. The underlying tone, however, is whining. He wanted the review to sound “nice,” also, “honest.” It is an attempt to extinguish me graciously. Friends like to see one’s work receive attention, especially when it is rare.

Not only does Mr. Auster’s approach to my work bog down in insubstantial subjectivist considerations: the mere biographical representation is faulty, the general scholarship superficial. A late-comer in the game of ill-tempered treatment of my work, he uses a rhetoric not uncommon in it: admiration that qualifies itself out of itself while stealing the name of it. His reading of my poems is linguistically and poetically illiterate. He uses the stale strategy of the Mean school of Riding criticism: they are devoid of “imagery,” the metaphor lacks concrete reference-content, is but a means of trading in abstractions, my poems are those of an anti-poetic poet. Pursuing this vein, Mr. Auster asserts that I do not mean “wind” by “wind,” that I—perhaps the most serious contemporary devotee of the sanities of language—nurse notions, in the lines “Come words, away…,” impossible to me, represents me as seeking in language a not-human kind of truth, a conception combining insensitivity to my poetic and linguistic ideals, and ignorance of my idea of truth.

The basic summary is: I omitted the essential, treated of the world without including the world in it, repudiated the physical realities of voice, human existence. Let all who bait my work thus prove their superiority in reality of voice-qualities, and loyalty to all that is of the stuff of human integrity, and concern with our world’s actualities in their total force as our life, and our problem of making one sense of them and ourselves.

I pause over one of Mr. Auster’s historical touches, reference to Robert Graves telling-off Auden for his imitations of me. That is retrospective self-preening. Auden’s takings from me were Gargantuan, rather comically assiduous. Graves’ are on a scale not treatable as comic. But what others have variously taken outstrips these. Mr. Auster’s reporting my poems defective—something missing, seriously—yet important to know may enlarge resort to them as useful for creative ingestion.

Mr. Auster treats my earlier work, as represented by my poems, not so ill as not to be able to use it against my later work, as represented by The Telling. It is no case of “something missing”: it just fails. In meanness-kindness he remarks on “the exceptional quality of its prose” and “the innovations of its form,” as he waves it off to literary dump-ground. He then does the honors at the grave of my poetic work. To clinch the settling of my literary fate, he provides a footnote of lavish praise of an early prose work of mine for qualities of humor and other graces submerged in my poetic work (rather than missing?). Indeed, he credits some unglacialness to the poems, invoking Saint Emily’s favor for the wretched female poet not quite deserving of a male-comparison boost. (Poor wretch Emily D—relegated for her momentary ecstasies of flight from a prime good sense and poised sensibility to a post of compulsory bliss for occasional hagiolatrous literary reference.)

Mr. Auster goes too far in his dismissal of The Telling, this product of lifelong studying how to speak so that one speaks, of what is for being spoken, that which most waits on being spoken. His report is sloppy, his paraphrase cheapens it. I did not write it “for” a magazine. Or tell of “a mystical experience.” Or see it as “the successful continuation of my efforts as a poet.” Or speak of “a time of wholeness.” Or call previous thought myth-making. Or oppose a myth of my own to myths.

The whine swells at the close: she was the cause of her own neglect. I, laboring continuously, have done more than the likes of those who regard me as having been “away,” to show how, with reasoned words, human beings may redress their neglect of their minds, their disregard of their souls.—That misquotation “May the Mayness…” reads like Mr. Auster’s understanding of The Telling.

I am, without Mayness,
   meanness, with just me-ness,
Laura (Riding) Jackson

Wabasso, Florida

Paul Auster replies:

Mrs. Jackson seems to feel that anything less than total acceptance of her position is to be interpreted as an outright rejection of everything she stands for, that praise tempered by criticism amounts to nothing more than a devious form of ridicule.

She refuses to understand that one can be of two minds about something. Her work is both admirable and difficult, and it cannot fail to elicit strong reactions. I do not see why she should object to this. For to challenge her ideas is certainly not to dismiss them. If I had wanted to do that, I would not have taken the trouble to write the article in the first place.

The tone of Mrs. Jackson’s letter exhibits the same self-righteousness that I find so disagreeable in much of her writing, and just as my article was in no way condescending to her accomplishments, I will not now condescend to answer her personal attacks.

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