Talking Out of School


From the Archive

Stephen Spender.

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Stephen Spender, born on this day in 1909, was interviewed for our Art of Poetry series in 1980. It’s a gossipy, unrestrained interview, with asides about Yeats, Hemingway, Eliot, Pound, and Auden, among others. But maybe Spender was running his mouth too much; the interview occasioned a pair of heated responses from Martha Gellhorn and Laura Riding Jackson, both of whom disputed the facts he’d relayed to his interviewer. Their letters were so long, and so full-throated in their denunciations, that we published them in their entirety in our Spring 1981 issue, allowing Spender to respond to both. 

Here’s the bit of Spender’s interview that upset Laura Riding Jackson:

Another thing that amused Yeats very much for some reason was Robert Graves and the whole saga of his life with Laura Riding. He told how Laura Riding threw herself out of a window without breaking her spine, or breaking it but being cured very rapidly. All that pleased Yeats tremendously.

It’s an understandable concern—one doesn’t often wish to have one’s episodes of defenestration discussed casually in print. Jackson took particular umbrage at Spender’s use of amused, which she deemed a “disgusting word for this disgusting exposure by Yeats of his organ of humor.” Her letter goes on to denigrate the jockeying for status that characterizes so many literary discussions:

The reference to myself exhibits an attitude to me as one who is an item of literary mention outside the bounds of the Important Mentions but useful as something of a flourish of special sophistication. Literary interviews bring out this particular worst—addiction to strategic mentions—of the literary—world worsts … Spender is a gentle-mannered but astute Yes-Man of the spheres of the contemporary literary-world’s life in which this status carries an accent as of topmost social standing. His personal equipment of writer capability and sensitivity, initially, likely, of no mean substance, has been thinned into a fluid distribution of literary interestedness in which deference to the discrimination of importance-status is mingled with a benign literary-world universality of interest. The stretching of himself between the two poles of literary personalistic importance and humanitarian literary fellowship has converted him into a namby-pamby enthusiast of all the rest as deserving of something or other, for the honor of literature.

Spender, for his part, thought that Jackson should be pleased with the mention; since it depicted her as someone who could survive, miraculously, a fall from a window, it gave her a kind of supernatural vibe:

If she were one to accept apologies, I would like to apologize to Laura Riding for saying that Yeats was amused by the Riding/Graves or Graves/Riding saga, and I would like also to apologize to the ghost of Yeats for causing bad blood with the living. However in extenuation I would point out that the saga surely derives from the epilogue Graves wrote to the first edition of Goodbye to All That. Graves refers, rather cryptically, here, to Laura Riding throwing herself out of a window, breaking her spine and making a recovery which seems more apotheosis than miracle. The reader has the impression that Graves regarded the episode as a magical event in the life of some saint. Presumably, at the time when this was written it met with the approval of Laura Riding.

If you want the whole argument, read “Guerre de Plume” here, and subscribe now for digital access to every short story, poem, portfolio, and essay from The Paris Review.