Carrying Flame: A Look2 Essay on Lola Ridge
The following piece has been adapted from the author’s biography of Lola Ridge, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet (2016).
Lola Ridge slipped under the ropes and started straight for the cordon of mounted police and the prison doors. A young mounted guard, a boy, rode down upon her. As he reined in his horse fairly over her, she heard him whispering in a frightened voice, “What do you want?”
—Jeannette Marks, Thirteen Days
She wanted a just trial for Sacco and Vanzetti. Lola Ridge, a poet and committed activist, attended a 1927 protest outside the Massachusetts prison where Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti would be executed for robbery and murder—crimes they likely did not commit. Lola Ridge dared “the trooper to ride her down, she refused to leave the rope,” according to scholar Jeannette Marks. “Drumbeats of the hooves, on roped-off street, pounding / with a dim percussion,” Ridge writes in her late poem “Three Men Die,” where she “glimpsed spread / nostrils and the white / Fire of the eye.” Ridge’s presence at the protest had been announced in advance on the front pages of major newspapers. The public revered Ridge as the author of The Ghetto and Other Poems, a book that portrayed immigrants like Sacco and Vanzetti as human, struggling, but with hopes for the future. Ridge, too, was an immigrant, having traveled across the Pacific from New Zealand. She was also an anarchist when anarchy was a political possibility, especially among intellectuals and artists like Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce—and immigrants, those who had left their homes to pursue the dream of freedom in the country that promised it.
Born in Dublin in 1873, Ridge immigrated to Australia as a four-year-old and then spent the next twenty-three years in the goldmining town of Hokitika, New Zealand. After studying art for four years in Sydney, she sailed for America in 1908, although her husband threatened to kill her if she took along their eight-year-old son. On arrival, she changed her name, claimed she was Australian rather than a New Zealander, and took ten years off her age. She would be starting over in a new country, yet another new literary scene, and she needed time to establish herself—and youth more easily attracts opportunity. She left her son under an assumed name at an orphanage in Los Angeles. Perhaps she feared that together, the two of them would starve. There were still poorhouses in the US during this time. Only a few years later, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva would leave her daughters in a Russian orphanage during a famine, thinking they would survive better without her. Her two-year-old quickly died of starvation anyway.
In Australasia, Ridge had published many Edwardian ballads similar to the Australian “Waltzing Matilda,” but after ten years in the U.S., part of it working with anarchist Emma Goldman and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, she burst onto the literary scene with the very modernist The Ghetto and Other Poems. Featured on the cover of the New Republic and lauded by anthologist and eventually U.S. poet laureate Louis Untermeyer as “the discovery of the year,” the collection’s title poem reveals an intimate knowledge of the Jewish immigrants’ lives.
Now all have gone save an old man with mirrors–
Little oval mirrors like tiny pools.
He shuffles up a darkened street
And the moon burnishes his mirrors–
Till they shine like phosphorous…
The moon like a skull,
Staring out of eyeless sockets at the old man trundling the pushcarts. (Ghetto 27-8)
Instead of portraying the immigrants as victims or as subhuman, “snarling a weird Yiddish,” as Henry James had termed them, or the Jew squatting on the windowsill in Eliot’s “Gerontion” or beneath the rats in his “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” Ridge found the possibility of renewal in their difficult lives.
Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat,
Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob… (Ghetto 11)
An interview in 1919 revealed that Ridge had lived “in a five by seven room in an East Side tenement” when she first came to New York City. The Ghetto and Other Poems displays an intimate knowledge of life on Hester Street, and in the sweatshop. Working terms would have been rough: nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays, with women earning between $7 and $12 a week. Ridge’s fellow workers would have been the Italians or Eastern European girls who ruled the neighborhood. She knew their situation well:
Sadie dresses in black.
She has black-wet hair full of cold lights
And a fine-drawn face, too white.
All day the power machines
Drone in her ears…
All day the fine dust flies
Till throats are parched and itch (Ghetto 11)
Lola Ridge knew the miseries and disappointments of the immigrants firsthand, unlike Emma Lazarus, a comfortable middle-class Jew whose ancestors emigrated during the colonial period, whose “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. Although Ridge wasn’t Jewish, it was her gift to feel deeply about the situation of all immigrants and their politics in America. Her poem, “Debris,” written while newcomers slept on park benches by the thousands during the economic depression of the 1910s, was likened to the poetry of H.D. and Emily Dickinson, and remains a model of Imagist engagement with the world:
I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house. (Ghetto 43)
In 1919, Ridge gave a speech in Chicago entitled “Women and the Creative Will,” about how sexually constructed gender roles hinder female development—ten years before Virginia Woolf wrote “A Room of One’s Own.” “Woman is not and never has been man’s natural inferior,” Ridge announced. By the early 1920s, while Ridge was the editor of the influential Others and, later, Broom magazine, she presided over Thursday afternoon salons where William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon hatched plans for their magazine Contact, twenty-year-old Hart Crane flirted with everyone in sight, her good friend Marianne Moore read early drafts of her own work, and Vladimir Mayakovsky stomped on her coffee table. Crane was so inspired by her sadomasochistic poem about the Brooklyn Bridge that his copy of her book opens to it in Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library:
Over the night like an ecstasy—
I feel your coils tightening…
And the world’s lessening breath. (Ghetto 70)
Ridge was one of the first poets to delineate the life of the poor in Manhattan and, in particular, women’s lives in New York City. Her second book, Sun-Up and Other Stories, contains a striking modernist depiction of a young girl’s interior life, for which the New York Times gave her the “foremost place of any American woman writing poetry.” No important poet would depict a child’s point of view for another fifty years. Woven into the long title poem is the subject’s treatment of her doll Janie, perhaps illustrating her own abuse—or the normal behavior of any little girl with her Barbie.
I beat Janie
and beat her…
but still she smiled…
so I scratched her between the eyes with a pin.
Now she doesn’t love me anymore…
she scowls…and scowls…
though I’ve begged her to forgive me
and poured sugar in the hole at the back of her head. (Sun-up 21)
Red Flag, Ridge’s third collection, was published by Viking with bright red covers in 1927, two years after the publisher’s founding. “The fire, the earnestness, the bitter and honey savors are here as in her earlier work,” writes Babette Deutsch for the New York Herald Tribune. The book features poems about “death rays,” a much feared armament in development at the time, as well as love poems, and a poem about the terrors of the sea.
The sea is a wrinkled silence
Under the audacious lustre of the air…
The emptily effacing air,
That has closed upon so many cries…
Yet holds in its blue vacuum
No bleached white evidence. (Red Flag 97)
Firehead, a 218-page single poem on the crucifixion written in six weeks at Yaddo, received sixty reviews across the country. Illustrating its full-page New York Times review was a woodcut of Daumier’s Ecce Homo, which depicts Jesus suffering the jeers of crowds in front of Pilate’s palace. In the Chicago Daily Tribune, Stephen Vincent Benét wrote, “This is magnificent work.” Most often written in the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus, it is difficult to excerpt, given the complexity and length of the poem:
To his small frantic lips, the one
Deep need of his that I could ever fill
And wrapped him in a finer linen than I wore
But that was all (Firehead 131)
Fire continued to be a source of inspiration for Ridge, a particularly apt image in view of the burning of the Reichstag (about which she published a poem), and the impending conflagration of war. Horace Gregory in the Saturday Review of Literature writes of her last book, Dance of Fire, that “It was as though the wind in the alleys of ‘The Ghetto,’ ‘carrying flame,’ had discovered tinder and then transformed itself to larger meaning.” The cover of the book invoked flame, as it came swathed in a gleaming metallic cover with an Art Deco figure of a man holding fire itself.
…Fire, of which our grain
Is cored, in very nature treacherous,
Fulfills itself in fire. (Dance of Fire 16)
Harriet Monroe, founder of POETRY, and William Rose Benét, founder of the Saturday Review of Literature, called Ridge a genius. Although described as a “Vestal of the arts” by William Carlos Williams for her dedication to poetry, Ridge was no saint. She wrote of the world she experienced, unlike her friend Marianne Moore with her quaint “habit” of the three-cornered hat and cape, whose poetry by comparison could seem devoid of human connection. Ridge wrote about the rights of women, laborers, blacks, Jews, immigrants, and homosexuals. She depicted lynchings, executions, race riots, and imprisonment. Eventually, she was arrested during the Massachusetts demonstration against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and hauled off with Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1936, watching a parade in Mexico City, she raised her fist in solidarity with the marching Communists. “Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not,” Ridge told an interviewer in the 1930s.
Despite her New York Times obituary in 1941, which described her as one of the leading poets of America, few have heard of her today. She died at the nadir of leftist politics, just as the US was entering World War II. By then, Eliot and Pound had very effectively equated “elitism” with “good” in poetry. Two years earlier, John Crowe Ransom published his notorious essay, “The Poet as Woman.” In it he attributed Millay’s and all women’s poetry to “personal moods” concerning “natural objects which call up love and pity.” He suggested that women were close to “the world of the simple senses,” which left them “indifferent to intellectuality” and that their minds were “not strict enough or expert enough to manage” complex poetic forms. He wrote that women threatened twentieth-century poetry with immature emotionalism and obsolete formalism. “A woman lives for love,” he wrote, particularly referencing Millay—perhaps because she had just sold sixty-thousand copies of Huntsman, What Quarry? “Miss Millay is rarely and barely very intellectual, and I think everybody knows it.” As William Drake wrote in First Wave: Women Poets in America 1915-1945: “So thorough was the denigration of the women poets who flourished [then] that their continuity with a later generation of women poets has effectively been destroyed.” Even Adrienne Rich, educated at Radcliffe in the 1940s, struggled with the strictures between feeling and form, then believing that “a too-compassionate art is half an art.”
Joining the New Critics’ virulent antifeminist attacks was the burgeoning movement against radical poetry of all kinds, to the point that by the 1950s, critics had recanted nearly all the work of the 1930s and rehabilitated the experiments of the 1920s. Free verse itself was suspect. Ridge’s friend William Carlos Williams did not escape the political turmoil: red-baiting prevented him from serving as US poet laureate. Even the anarchist revolutionary poet Walt Whitman was deradicalized, he who was thought to put “the average man on a pedestal” but in fact, according to one arch-conservative, “had no such idea in his head.” The New Critics rejected all attention to biographical, sociological, and political matters. For decades, they and their followers effectively blotted out the personal and politics as subjects for both genders, and along with that, the careers of many accomplished poets., emasculating the art form and emptied it of important sources of inspiration. By 1941, traditional forms were ascendant and flowers and the seasons better subjects than anything remotely political. It would take Allen Ginsberg to blast away at this critical shield, the son of a Communist but an aficionado of John Clare; Adrienne Rich, throwing off the glittering meter and rhyme of her first collection to write Diving Into the Wreck, a masterpiece of political free verse; Phil Levine, publishing his many poems about workers in Detroit during the ’70s and ’80s; and Galway Kinnell, writing his most famous poem, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” extolling nearly the same neighborhood as Ridge’s ghetto.
While Ridge’s wide taste distinguished the contents of Others and Broom, in her own poetry this eclecticism made it difficult for critics to label her, as she embraced both formal and free verse. New Critics found her poetry especially difficult, with their emphasis on the poem as self-contained and self-referential. Unhelpful, too, was the arcane language and obtuse rhetoric in her last two books, much like that used by her protégé Crane. In 1947, Kenneth Rexroth condemned her for “over-reaching ambition,” but mentioned this in the company of Whitman, Sandburg, and Ford Madox Ford.
Surely the sixties generation that rediscovered feminism and anarchy would have resurrected her. Not quite. Although her work appears in two important anthologies of the period, and her life as an anarchist should have appealed greatly to the revolutionary spirit of the time, her poetry has not been revived. For the last forty years there have been serious obstructions to accessing Ridge’s papers, a situation that has, no doubt, contributed to her relative obscurity and neglect. Feminist critic Louise Bernikow singled out the works of Lola Ridge and Genevieve Taggard as twice neglected because they were women and radicals, part of “the buried history within the buried history.” An entire generation and tradition of American poetry has essentially been amputated from literary consciousness. The truncated branch of poetry that Ridge represents should remind readers that the discourse of today does not have to take the form that it does. Poets should have a continuing presence in dissent from truths that too many people take for granted. “I write about something that I feel intensely,” Ridge told an interviewer. “How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?”
As an anarchist, freedom was everything for Ridge, and that is what America promised. Her practice in personal freedom led her to abandon her son, to an open marriage, to poverty relieved only by patrons, and to politics that led her to celebrate the Russian Revolution and then to rebuke it. She traveled to remote parts of the world—Baghdad, rural Mexico—without an itinerary, alone, penniless, to be free to experience the world around her. “I have then the first requisite for a great book—the freedom of my own spirit, my own citadel and command of its gates,” she writes a few months before her death. She believed that anarchy presented an “opportunity for more complete self-expression for all.” But she understood its limits. “Anarchy is the philosophy I feel closest to and shall always be, but I no longer believe in the possibility of its application to modern society.” She saw the struggle for freedom within a larger framework. As she put it in “Woman and the Creative Will”: “This is not–in its purely political and least significant aspect–a woman’s right as much as a human rights movement, that stands squarely linked with the rise and fall of the proletariat of the world.” She would see the world through a woman’s vision but illuminate all of it; she would have men’s strength too, not just a woman’s.
Five months after her death in 1941, the poet/politician Samuel A. DeWitt endowed the Lola Ridge Memorial Prize at the Poetry Society of America with money he made at his tool company, House of a Thousand Bargains. The first of his eight books of poetry, entitled Idylls of the Ghetto and Other Poems, published in 1927, detailed his childhood in the tenements Ridge had praised, but he is most famous for being expelled from the New York State Assembly in 1920, along with four other assemblymen, all rightfully elected but members of the Socialist Party. DeWitt’s friend Upton Sinclair based a character on him in The Jungle. Aaron Kramer, a fellow radical poet/socialist, remembered him putting the Poetry Society in its place:
One month I found the whole group beyond endurance for its aridity and egocentrism, but was not yet entrenched enough to dare say so. But Samuel DeWitt of Yonkers, a down-to-earther respected by the bluebloods surrounding him only for the wealth with which he endowed the Lola Ridge and other awards, got up to his full six-and-a-half feet, waved the pages of sterile verses we had just heard, and declared: “There are three kinds of poetry: epic, lyric, and pupik. These are perfect examples of pupik poetry!” The silence that greeted him was one of tolerance—they knew the word was Yiddish but could not guess that it meant “belly-button.” I, however, broke the silence with a bellow of laughter as rough as his comment, and rushed from my seat to shake his hand.
“Nice is the one adjective in the world that is laughable applied to any single thing I have ever written,” Ridge once boasted to a friend. She saw very clearly where freedom’s repression could lead. Her brilliant sonnet “Electrocution,” written before Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, captures the way that even a social system as “free” as democracy deals, finally, with its people.
He shudders…feeling on the shaven spot
The probing wind, that stabs him to a thought
Of storm-drenched fields in a white foam of light,
And roads of his hill-town that leap to sight
Like threads of tortured silver…while the guards—
Monstrous deft dolls that move as on a string,
In wonted haste to finish with this thing,
Turn faces blanker than asphalted yards.
They heard the shriek that tore out of its sheath
But as a feeble moan…yet dared not breathe,
Who stared there at him, arching—like a tree
When the winds wrench it and the earth holds tight—
Whose soul, expanding in white agony,
Had fused in flaming circuit with the night. (Red Flag 65)