The Blood of a Poet or a Liar?

A "Deformative" Interpretation of Works by Laura (Riding)Jackson

Through this performance, it is my intention to enact , comment upon, and brooch reconciliation with the struggles and tensions that are apparent in the late Laura (Riding) Jackson’s views of and commentary on writing, in general, and on poetry, specifically. It first interested me to deal with the issue of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s renunciation of poetry critically after hearing an impassioned plea by a poet in her defense at a panel presentation which was devoted to renunciation. Soon thereafter, I bought an edition of her collected works which emphasizes the split between “Laura Riding,” the poet, and “Laura Jackson,” the writer of “tellings” (her word for fiction, as she feels the word fiction is derogatory). On the cover there is a photograph of a young Laura Riding and an older Laura Jackson— They look away from one another, each keenly aware of and interested in the other’s existence.

Upon first reading the poetry therein, it was impossible not to speak it aloud. Riding’s voice inundates each line. I embarrassed myself in the lounge in the Squirrel Hill Carnegie Library by whispering her words with dramatic gestures for two hours straight. This is where the piece was born. It became obvious to me that the key to her renunciation of poetry and her criticism of its efficacy must exist somewhere in the performance of her words. This became even clearer after discovering the inherently theatrical nature of many of her later “tellings” and then clearer still after discovering audio files of Laura Jackson speaking on the renunciation of poetry and performing her earlier works at Harvard in 1962.

Initially I had intended to bring about reconciliation, to find answers to her renunciation through the construction and enactment of this piece. Yet, eventually, after frantic searches through essays, “tellings,” and later poetry, I discovered that it would be next to impossible and, more importantly, not a very “important” task to accomplish. By 1962 Laura (Riding) Jackson was sure to indicate the two separate beings, the two separate writers from whose works she reads. She didn’t desire reconciliation. When she pronounces that the Laura Jackson, who is speaking, has “moved beyond” the works of Laura Riding, whose poetry she is reading, she demands to be viewed as resolved. Therefore, with as much sincerity as is possible, I grant her that. This piece does only the job of re-performing that resolution in the way that I see it as happening—perhaps as a warning for the poet/critics of my age.

The format of the piece itself is simple: Two actresses appear on stage after an opening statement from Jackson’s reading at Harvard. The opening statement is pieced-together clips which establish the existence of two Lauras, reveal the fact that she has “moved past” poetry, and give at least one strident defense of her renunciation of poetry against critics. These two actresses should be seated on opposite sides of the room to represent the elder, Laura Jackson, on the left and the younger, Laura Riding, on the right. The elder wears a black ribbon in her hair and a long darker colored skirt. The younger wears a white ribbon in her hair and a shorter lighter colored skirt. The costuming is to come as close to resembling the actual attire of Laura (Riding) Jackson in the photographs used for her collected works as possible. Each should be seated at a desk surrounded by papers, books, and writing utensils. Some sort of organizing scheme should be obvious, in order for the audience to witness the actresses sorting their respective writings. The elder should also have a waste basket where keeps her old poems—this is an important symbolic feature of the piece, as when the younger is searching for poems, unable to find them, she crosses the stage to retrieve them from the elder who with disdain pulls it from the waste basket to hand to her. The elder should also be seen reading the collected works and make some obvious gesture to the audience when she hands it off to the younger to read her second poem that indicates that it is the collected works.

The first thing that the younger reads are excerpts from Riding’s early essay “The Myth,” which she pulls from her typewriter and then recites. These excerpts should display the younger’s belief in poetry as a tool for humanity to supersede the false mythological structure that encapsulates the rest of the humanity. She then reads two poems which touch on the subject of how Riding defines herself and her role as a poet (“Poet’s Corner” and “Makeshift”). As the younger recited her poems the elder should move from listening attentively with disapproval to acting with frustration and attempting to ignore her and focus on her own writing.

After this third poem there should be a pause for another statement from the Harvard reading explicating her poetry generally and explaining how they have changed in meaning for her later in life. After this break, the elder takes the stage and recites a “telling,” “Mademoiselle Comet.” The younger acts in the role of the Mademoiselle, showing the poet/entertainer taking on many different roles and personae while leaving the audience and herself unfilled and still surrounded by falsities. The elder then returns to her seat, observes the younger disrobing her costuming and begins writing again. The elder then takes the paper from her typewriter and begins to recite “Poet—A Lying Word” addressing it to the younger, who is until the end, entirely unaware of the elder’s existence.

The elder then returns to her seat and sits quietly. The younger continues to write and then begins to recite “Because I sit here so.” The elder joins her on the refrain “Because I sit here so” and then recites the final stanza with her. This is intended to indicate the elder’s confusion and sadness. The piece ends with the collected works sitting between the two of them on the floor. The younger goes to pick it up looking curious and confused. She flips to the opening of Jackson’s final writing “The Telling”. The elder joins her and then read the opening paragraph alternating lines together. The piece closes with the same sound file that it opened with.

In the background of the piece  corresponding  and juxtaposing scenes from Jean Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” play. This movie is a similar commentary of the status of and life of the poet from his youth to his death. The conflict created by the visuals should cause the audience to resituate the poetry and writings being read into a larger world context— from being simply writing on a page, sounds, and explications of personal experience to something larger and more mythological.

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