Poets on Film: The Laureate's Literary Throuple & the Question of Poetic Biography
It's steamy. But the historical figures portrayed in this film wanted nothing to do with poetic biography at all.
As a student, when I first came across the work of Robert Graves and Laura Riding, I didn’t have the faintest inkling about the high drama of these poets’ personal lives. Is that for the best?
For example, is my reading, understanding, and enjoyment of this poem altered by the knowledge that Riding once threw herself out of the window during an argument with three of her lovers?
The Spring Has Many Silences The spring has many sounds: Roller skates grind the pavement to noisy dust. Birds chop the still air into small melodies. The wind forgets to be the weather for a time And whispers old advice for summer. The sea stretches itself And gently creaks and cracks its bones…. The spring has many silences: Buds are mysteriously unbound With a discreet significance, And buds say nothing. There are things that even the wind will not betray. Earth puts her finger to her lips And muffles there her quiet, quick activity…. Do not wonder at me That I am hushed This April night beside you. The spring has many silences.
Possibly. Even for a relatively anodyne poem, there are possibilities to read the personal into it and alter the experience of the work. The penultimate line, which contains the sultry phrase “beside you,” puts me in mind of Riding’s personal life, and I’m wont to imagine her whispering this poem to a lover.
It’s an age-old question. How much biographical information do we want about poets? The New Criticism, which Riding and Graves’ Survey of Modernist Poetry helped to usher in, says as little as possible. New Critics believed that there was such a thing as reading a poem objectively, siloed off from its historical and biographical contexts. Today, such readings are unpopular and rarely offered, and not just in poetry.
What would it be like to lack the knowledge that Frida Kahlo was disabled when looking at her paintings? Is it more moving to watch Misty Copeland dance knowing that she was the first Black female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater? Doesn’t this knowledge enrich our experience of their works? You betcha. And it cuts both ways: knowing Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct history changes how I view his comedy (and has meant that I’ve stopped consuming it).
The Laureate, the 2021 film that centers on the years in which Graves and Riding were entangled, attempts to link the personal lives of the poets to their work but mostly just ends up reveling in the salacious details and the poets’ open-lipped yearnings.
Instead of letting the life enrich the work, the life eclipses the work, here. But perhaps that’s what biopics are for.
The film takes place in the Roaring 20s, and centers on Robert Graves, then known as a war poet, and his wife Nancy, who is a painter and outspoken feminist. Robert is in a personal and professional slump, possibly due to the trauma of war. “No one needs a war poet anymore,” he glumly tells a fellow writer, “unless they’re dead.” Robert also feels threatened by the burgeoning Modernist movement. “People don’t like war poetry they like this modern… clever stuff,” he says. The stage is set for a muse to enter.
Eventually, he comes across the work of American writer Laura Riding, which ignites his creative fire. He invites her to visit their home in England, which she does. She is strange and brash and charming, and before long she has insinuated herself into Robert and Nancy’s marriage, seducing both parties individually. The film makes of Riding the ultimate muse: creative, sexual, dangerous, and full of big ideas.
The film gets high marks for highlighting the work and intellectual discussions of its subject poets early on. In the introductory frames, we hear poetry and are shown books and book titles as backstory in a series of quick images that are quite effective. The early scenes that include a poetry reading hosted by T. S. Eliot and attended by Graves at which Siegfried Sassoon also reads are fascinating as well—oh to be a fly on the wall! But by the time Riding starts to pull Graves away from his wife, we abandon a discussion of the art altogether.
The film posits Laura Riding and Nancy Nicholson as two poles: Laura as the endgame of Nancy’s revolutionary ideals. When both women end up disappointed by the close of the film, we’re asked to refocus our attention on the man at the center of both of their lives as the potential cause of that misery.
The Writing Life
The Laureate is at its best when it attempts to get at the poet’s creative life and poiesis itself. “There’s no money in poetry… there’s no poetry in money either,” Graves quips. Amen to that! So little money is there that Nancy has to sell her paintings and the couple scratches and saves when Graves turns down a reliable teaching post so he can write a book with Riding. Not on my watch, Robbie!
As you watch the film, you become aware of the unreal amount of labor the women behind “brilliant” men put in. Nancy Nicholson, Graves’ real-life wife, was left to raise their four children alone in the aftermath of the Riding “experience.” Imagine having not one, but two women in your home who want nothing more than to satisfy your every creative, sexual, and physical need. To put you back to bed when your post-traumatic stress gives you nightmares. To keep the house while you write poems in Mallorca. It boggles the mind.
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But anyhow, The Laurate is most watchable in these moments that chronicle intimate creativity and native fluency with poetry: Robert quoting Riding’s own poem to her when she arrives in his home (thirsty much?), Riding urging him to write on the spur of the moment, the first thing that comes to his mind.
The film is truly most successful in capturing the spirit of poetry in its opening and closing frames, which offer a quick succession of emotional images of Robert, Laura, Nancy, and one of their children (interestingly, though Robert & Nancy had four children, the film shows only one child, though the knowledge that Graves left behind four children with Nancy is far more devastating). Particularly affecting is a late flash scene in which Graves kneels by his own wounded body in the war. Most films either have poetry as their subject or as their format inspiration, but in moments like these, when we get a poetic treatment of a poet, the results are astonishing. The final frames damn near make up for the formulaic salaciousness of the previous hour.
If we thought of Sylvia not as a biopic but as a film about Plath’s suicidality, we will be better prepared to understand the goals of The Laureate, which is not so much a film about Riding and Graves the writers but as a film about their love affairs. This focus gives films like these a thesis, which they need. For poets who watch depictions of poets on screen, our needs are different, if unfulfillable: we want to know, somehow, what made them different, great, or unique.
It feels both better and worse when we realize that they lived and loved and fucked up just as we do. How did they make such lasting art? Out of the same messy material you and I have on hand.