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BOOK REVIEW : Major Life of a Minor Poet, Deftly Done : IN EXTREMIS: The Life of Laura Riding by Deborah Baker ; Grove Press $24.95, 496 pages


Laura Riding's name rings a small bell. A bell about a scandal involving the writer Robert Graves.

Riding was the young woman who took a suicidal leap from a window of Graves' London flat in 1929. It was probably from the fourth floor, a jump of about 50 feet, and Riding suffered four crushed vertebrae.

Amazingly, she recovered. At the time she was a 28-year-old poet-prodigy, a New Yorker come to London. As evidence of how quickly she had assimilated Englishness, Riding's parting words as she stepped onto the sill were "Goodby, chaps."

The leap was the outcome of months of emotional storms arising from a three-way marriage. Robert Graves; his wife, Nancy Nicholson, and Riding shared a folie a trois (Baker's clever phrase) they called The Trinity. Three was company for a while; then Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs made it a crowd. The whole cast was there watching as Riding jumped. Graves ran downstairs and jumped out of a lower-story window to get to her. Phibbs ran away, and Nicholson, the sensible one, called an ambulance.

Baker's book, the first major life of Laura Riding, is a model of literary biography--reasonable, sensible, informed, well-paced. Few would call Laura Riding a major poet, and she was never a financial or a significant critical success.

To understand her work, Baker would have us read one small book of poems published in 1932, "Poems A Joking Word." Certainly no one would ever call Laura Riding easy to love. Until her death in 1991 at age 90, she was still fighting the battles of the 1920s and '30s--disagreeing angrily with every version of her that appeared in print, usually a few chapters in books about Robert Graves.

Sometimes she was portrayed as the muse who freed him to write "Goodbye to All That," his classic World War I memoir. Sometimes she was pictured as the harpy who kept him from writing more. After her recovery, Riding lived with Graves, apart from his wife and their four children, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, where he wrote the historical novel, "I, Claudius," which brought him fame, fortune and eventually a prominent place on "Masterpiece Theater."

Baker deftly manages the threads in Riding's intellectual and social life: the iconoclastic theories and the crackpot notions, the passionate friendships, the bitter break-ups.

Riding was very much the self-made intellectual. She dropped out of Cornell, married a history professor and began to make her name as a poet when she won the Nashville Poetry Prize in 1924.

The judges were the sophisticated young Southern poets who called themselves the Fugitives--including Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. She was well-spoken, determined and energetic--"strenuous," as Allen Tate's wife politely put it. She left her husband and moved to Greenwich Village, where she met the literary heavy hitters of the day: Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson and poet Hart Crane.

Her impulsiveness was matched by that of Robert Graves. He read a poem she wrote, began to write to her, then invited her to join him and his wife and children on a trip to Egypt. Riding moved into Graves's intellectual life as well as into his domestic life. Together they wrote "A Survey of Modernist Poetry," a work that included a now-famous 18-page analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129--"Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame."

Forget about the poet's life, his unhappy childhood, his ideas about the poem, their argument went. Read the poem only for "the reasons of poetry." That thinking was a direct inspiration to William Empson, a brilliant Cambridge undergraduate, who then wrote "Seven Types of Ambiguity," the seminal work of what came to be called New Criticism.

Socially, Riding was quite assertive. After living with Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson, she moved in with Schuyler Jackson and his wife, Kit. Jackson was a Time magazine writer who reviewed her poetry favorably.

William Carlos Williams, whose "Collected Poems" figured less prominently in the influential review, said of Riding, "All I know of her is that, personally, she is a prize bitch. . . ."

Soon after meeting the Jacksons, Riding was running their rural Pennsylvania house. She was not great, as we say on this coast, at maintaining boundaries. She accused Jackson's wife of being a witch and made the household participate in a rite in which everyone had to consign to the flames at least one of Kit's possessions.

She was morbid, defensive, difficult, crazy, but she certainly had a life and here it is in Baker's fine book. The poem that won the 1924 Nashville Poetry Prize is morbid, defensive and difficult, especially considering that it's the work of a 23-year-old. But it's also beautiful:

"Measure me by myself

And not by time or love or space

Or beauty. Give me this last grace:

That I may be on my low stone

a gauge unto myself alone.

I would not have these old faiths fall

To prove that I was nothing at all."

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