I want to bring your attention to a forgotten poet of the Left, Lola Ridge, and to the fine book that made me aware of her work. Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge edited by Daniel Tobin.
Modernism, Leftism, and the Spirit
The Poetry of Lola Ridge
Born Rose Emily Ridge in Dublin on December 12, 1873, the woman who would reinvent herself to become perhaps the most impassioned and certainly the most authentic of the proletarian poets of the New York modernist avant-garde emigrated with her mother as a child to New Zealand where she would marry the manager of a gold mine at the age of twenty-one. To look ahead thirty years from the life she had chosen in 1895 is to gain some measure of insight into the transformation she had undergone. In 1927, Alfred Kreymborg—one of the leading avant-garde poets of the day— describes her as “the frailest of humans physically and the poorest financially,” though nevertheless, as Peter Quatermain remarks, she was a “woman on the spiritual barricade fighting with her pen against tyranny.”1 Indeed, after her marriage to Peter Webster failed and her mother died, Lola Ridge emigrated to the United States in 1907, staying for a brief time in California, then settling in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. So began her life as one of the multitudes of left-wing reformers and artists (among them Kay Boyle, John Dos Passos, Harold Loeb, and Emma Goldman) who moved to lower Manhattan and contributed to its hot-bed of activism. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century lower Manhattan had filled with poor immigrants and workers supportive of leftist causes. As an activist of revolutionary fervor, over the next three decades until her death in Brooklyn in 1941, Ridge nevertheless composed some of the most vivid and politically conscious poems of her day. At the same time, her presence among New York’s avant-garde places her work within the context of such luminaries of modernist American poetry as Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane. The peripatetic literary and cultural sojourns of “The Lost Generation,” to which Ridge also had strong if contentious ties, also provide an evocative counterpoint to both the literary and civic life she herself decided to lead, as do the right-wing modernist programs of expatriate mandarins Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and the pure poetries of the Dadaists. From this perspective, Ridge appears to be a notable lone figure standing amidst the crowd of our American literary history, at once recognizable in the aesthetic and wider cultural currents of her time, but nevertheless curiously otherwise—a vivid original whose life and work embody the tumultuous confluence of forces that shaped the twentieth century.
To picture Lola Ridge as a defiant and heroic loner is not to engage in a kind of romanticism that she herself would refuse to embrace. Like Yeats without the imaginative infrastructure of a spiritual system, by the time she arrived in San Francisco and moved to Greenwich Village Ridge had already invented an “idealized version of herself.”2 “Rose Emily” had become “Lola,” a woman ten years younger than her actual age, as well as a poet, artist, and revolutionary. In this regard she reminds one of another “Lola”—Lola Montez, born Maria Delores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick in 1824 before recreating herself as the Spanish “Spider Dancer” and nineteenth-century America’s embodiment of immodesty. Both women were Irish emigrants who were forced to rely on their own powers of self-imagination to establish places for themselves in their respective worlds; both became famous in their time; both turned to religion and embraced the plight of the poor and the outcast. Unlike Montez, however, whose beauty and sensuality were legendary, Ridge assumed the visage of a saint and ascetic. Tall and thin,“frail enough to be blown away like a leaf ”3 according to Kay Boyle, blood-drained, her body slowly wasting with pulmonary tuberculosis, the image of Ridge as an impassioned and even saintly idealist emerges in Katherine Anne Porter’s description of the protest outside Charlestown Prison in Boston on August 22, 1927, where Sacco and Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fish-peddler, both avowed anarchists, were to be executed the next day for a payroll robbery and murder committed seven years earlier. Many believed them innocent, and that execution would be martyrdom for their political beliefs. As the police at the protest galloped about on horseback, “bearing down” as Porter tells us “on anyone who ventured beyond the edge of the crowd… one tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down on her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still.”4 The woman was Lola Ridge. So dramatic a commitment to her political and social ideals was not uncommon, nor was it alien to her artistic temperament. Horace Gregory, like Kay Boyle another Irish American with a substantial literary future, described their mutual friend as legendary in her “austere devotion to her talents.”5 Indeed, beyond linking the intensity of Ridge’s verve for social justice to her poetry, Gregory declares that “Ridge was possessed of a Celtic imagination whose insights gave life and color to her convictions.”6 He goes still further to portray Ridge as “unworldly,” a “vision-haunted Irish heroine” whose wind-swept, cold-water loft in the Village “was like some neatly, frugally kept cold-water flat in Dublin.”
While one ought to take Gregory’s perhaps overly romanticized portrayal of Ridge and his presuppositions about a Celtic imagination with a grain of salt, there is no doubt that the fervency of Ridge’s embrace of the life of deliberate poverty and her devotion to making poems both artistically vital and mindful of the poor and oppressed have their origins at least in part in her sense of identity as someone born Irish and therefore the inheritor of a particularly passionate and tragic cultural experience. Her passion for social justice finds an explicitly Irish expression in her poems dedicated to James Larkin, the great labor organizer, and Kevin Barry, a model of idealism in the face of force and a martyr to British oppression during the war for Irish independence. Her devotion to Ireland comes nearest to Gregory’s belief in a Celtic imagination in her poem “The Tidings,” written on the occasion of the Easter Rising. There, with a longing reminiscent and perhaps derivative of Francis Ledwidge’s in the trenches of France, she writes, “My heart is like a lover foiled / By a broken stair— / They are fighting to-night in Sackville Street, / and I am not there!”7 She broaches the subject of Ireland again, now symbolically, in the poem “Incompatability” from her third book, Red Flag:
Bull’s-hide white under red wrath
And a curt tone of blue…
By a gold harp on a green cloth—
How should they blend, these two?8
Though long departed from Ireland, Ridge’s poem places her concern with the country of her birth and its continued dominance by John Bull’s Union Jack in a volume that promotes its leftist sensibility in its title. At the same time, given the image of Ridge’s willingness to undergo a potential martyrdom under the horse’s hooves at Charlestown Prison, and the increasingly mystical tenor of her poetry in the books that followed Red Flag, her work also at times comes to echo the spiritual radicalism of Padraic Pearse—“O King that was born/To set bondsmen free/In the coming battle/Help the Gael!”9 Ridge would write her own poem, the epic Firehead, to dramatize the life of that King. Moreover, as Kay Boyle recounts, Ridge’s advocacy of suffering as a means to achieve redemption—not merely of the individual soul but of the world—greatly influenced her during the formative years of her own artistic and imagination growth. “Lola’s causes became mine,” Boyle writes,
and when I wrote my poems now I borrowed from her conscience and her poetic vocabulary. She gave to my rebellion a wider and, at the same time, a more indigenous setting. For a long time my heart had bled with the Irish insurgents, and I had carried everywhere with me a copy of Terrence MacSwiney’s letter to Cathal Brugha, a letter which he… had written after forty-six days of hunger striking…
The reason for MacSwiney’s death had defined for me in clearest terms the rebellion of the flesh against organized authority… But now it was Lola who spoke the vocabulary I wanted to hear, and all I had cherished vicariously took on the shadowy dimensions of another
Clearly, for the young Kay Boyle, Lola Ridge had become the embodiment of a specifically Irish dedication to a rebellion against injustice that was at once spiritual and worldly, as well as a mother figure at once associated with her own mother and with the Virgin.11 Still more significantly, as the daughter of Irish immigrants Boyle envisions the spiritually fueled “rebellion of the flesh against authority” as an ideal to put into practice in the New World, a legacy to be carried over from “another country’s history.” Ridge surely envisioned her connection to this tradition along similar lines, though at the same time the uniquely American context displayed in the majority of her poems reveals the forward-looking direction of her work. Her imagination is not merely Celtic, as Horace Gregory would have it, but emigrant in its character. One need only read her long poem, “The Ghetto,” a sustained portrait of life in the Jewish-American ghetto where she lived, or the ironic “Lullaby” in which an African American baby is thrown into a burning house by a white woman, to recognize that Ridge harbors no nostalgia either for “Inisfail” or “The Land Paved With Gold.” Indeed, her implicit affirmation of an Irish American poetic consciousness in poems like “Crucible,” written in praise of Robinson Jeffers, as well as in her affiliation and support of such younger poets as Horace Gregory and especially Kay Boyle, bears witness to her desire to forge both a life and a body of work at once resonant with Irish traditions though nonetheless cast in the American grain.
By all accounts, the literary and artistic crucible of New York’s avant-garde salons in the 1920s composed a striking mix of personalities and sensibilities, and Ridge quickly assumed a prominent if often circumspect position in that world. In February 1922, she became the American editor of Broom. Edited from Rome by expatriate New Yorker Harold Loeb, Broom sought to be the foremost journal of its day— indeed, the journal of cultural note—publishing work by Alfred Kreymborg, Kenneth Burke, Robert McAlmon, Ernest Walsh, Gertrude Stein, Malcolm Cowley, and a host of other writers, a few of whom (like Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane) would eventually enter the canon of American literature. Part of Ridge’s duties as American editor was to host a literary salon on Thursday afternoons with her second husband David Lawson, where the likes of Kay Boyle, John Dos Passos, Mina Loy, Glenway Wescott, Jean Toomer, Edward Arlington Robinson, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams would read their work and discuss artistic and literary trends. “We had arguments over cubism that would fill an afternoon,” William Carlos Williams recounts in his Autobiography.12 For her part, Kay Boyle observes in Being Geniuses Together that Ridge inspired sharply divided responses among those attending the salon. For Boyle, Ridge’s commitment both to the poor and her art brought her near to sainthood. “I cherished and protected her as if she were a small bright flame,” Boyle recounts. “Her work expressed a fiery awareness of social injustice as eloquently as Emanuel Carnevali’s or Maxwell Bodenheim’s, but it was always Lola’s voice that spoke, a woman’s savage voice, not theirs…”13 In contrast, by Boyle’s own admission, Robert McAlmon “had little sympathy for Lola’s earnest commitment to the arts and to the working class, a commitment so dramatized that people felt the necessity of either defending or abusing her whenever her name came up.”14 William Carlos Williams sums up the manner in which Ridge presided over the salon rather tersely and ironically but no doubt perceptively given the intensity of her social, artistic, and spiritual beliefs—“She made a religion of it.”15 Matthew Josephson, a would-be poet and associate of Harold Loeb’s, in his Life Among the Surrealists dismisses her time and again as “difficult” and condescends to her editorial abilities when he recounts that the European editors rejected most of the writers she recommended.16 Loeb objected to her “hair-trigger judgments and dogmatic opinions.”17 To be sure, it appears that Ridge was difficult in the way all passionate artists and social advocates are difficult when their sensibilities clash with those of others, and especially those in power. Ridge often took no salary for her work on Broom, and though Boyle often portrays Ridge haloed by the candle glow of sanctity she also avers to Emanuel Carnevali’s remark that Ridge “suffered with the snarl of a lioness… flinging itself madly against the walls of the ugly city…she is one of the most beautiful signs we have of women’s emancipation.”18 In short, it is probably true that for all their pretenses to modernity, Josephson, McAlmon, and Loeb were afflicted by a very traditional condescension toward the abilities of women—especially a woman like Ridge who, for all her modernity, clearly viewed the modern world of urban blight, poverty, and the progress of capitalist machine culture in a drastically different light.
In a famous phrase that has curiously come to define his own personal life more than the modern world he sought to describe, T.S. Eliot observed that our world suffered a “dissociation of sensibility,” a split between intellect and emotion that the modern poet needed to overcome.19 For Eliot, as for his fellow expatriate Ezra Pound, the modern world was a shambles. For Pound, this meant that the strong hand of Fascism became a necessary evil in order to restore an imagined golden age of Art and Culture to be appreciated, like all true art, only by the few. For Eliot, in addition to his political and cultural conservatism, it meant embracing an insular version of faith verging on quietism and requiring the renunciation of “strange gods,” including the modern world’s inevitable tendency to mix communities and races. At the root of Pound’s aesthetic elitism is the need to make a religion of Art—“O bright Apollo…/What god, man, or hero/Shall I place a tin wreath upon!”20 Read in the light of Pound’s embrace of Mussolini, these lines from “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” are prescient in their irony in more ways than the poet first intended. For all his learned recoveries and translations from Homeric Greece, to Troubadour Provence, to T’ang China, Pound’s foraging of the cultural past betrays his desire for aesthetic “purity control,” an impulse that could not be further from the cultural mélange of the Lower East Side. Eliot’s genius also recoils from modernity, and eventually embraces an ideal of ascetic purity. In contrast, Ridge’s asceticism points her outward toward the defining “otherness” of her world—the teeming immigrant “ghetto,” which is nothing if not an incipient figure for the world we have come to inhabit in the twenty-first century.
Ultimately, for all their brilliant innovations and their drive to “make it new,” both Pound and Eliot distrust modernity, and this profound distrust separates them from poets like William Carlos Williams who, as a futurist, embraces an art that forages lovingly among the surfaces and shattered atoms of a world tuned to the rhythms of the machine and guided by its belief in progress. It is for this reason that Williams called The Wasteland the great catastrophe, a claim that ironically belies the truth of his rival’s insight. There is a dissociation of sensibility in modernism, though beyond the conflicts of intellect and emotion this dissociation strikes at the heart of the West’s adherence to the doctrine of perpetual progress fused with and underwritten by capitalist culture. It is this futurist orientation that informed the European editors of Broom, Loeb and Josephson, and that dissociated them from Ridge. For Josephson, belief in the Machine Age was tantamount to a faith that could not be renounced without being labeled “retrograde.”21 Though less strident and condescending, Loeb’s description of the deterioration of his editorial relationship with Ridge shortly before she quit as American editor of Broom characterizes their aesthetic dissociation in precisely these terms:
Broom, in my opinion, should favor writers who appreciated the values in the contemporary scene. This partiality soon brought me into conflict with Lola, who tended to depreciate products of the American capitalist system. To her, capitalism was corrosive, its products corrupt; I felt that capitalism was impersonal, its products magnificent. Since many an untenable religion had in the past inspired glorious artifacts, why shouldn’t “money mysticism” do likewise?22
Loeb found Ridge maddeningly absolutist in her judgments, though Loeb’s seemingly objective account of the rift demonstrates an equally obdurate position. Capitalism is regarded as an impersonal cultural force, not to be judged on its effects on people. The products of capitalism, to use a capital metaphor, are Loeb’s only concern. Indeed, he invests them with an “impersonality” as doctrinal as Eliot’s claim in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that all great poetry must be impersonal.23 Moreover, at the same time as religion is deemed “untenable,” and valuable only for its “glorious artifacts,” capitalism becomes invested with a spiritual validity of the highest magnitude. Loeb, of course, is recounting a time when many expatriates like himself could absorb the wealth of European life and culture by appealing to the divine economies of their trust funds. That would change after 1929, and the underside of capitalism that Ridge knew and sought to portray became more widely experienced. In any case, it becomes clear from such recollections that Ridge not only distrusted capitalist modernity as vigorously as Eliot and Pound, she also fought to overcome a profound dissociation of sensibility by seeking to fuse together in her own work and the work she championed the incompatible forces of her religious and spiritual idealism with the social and materialist imperatives of her leftist convictions. That fusion, had it been successfully achieved, might have given high modernist poetry another alternative to the futurist secularism of Williams and the cultured pessimism of Pound and Eliot. Instead, Ridge’s inability to adequately achieve that synthesis is itself instructive of the internal quarrel that shaped her work as well as the pressures and pitfalls she failed to negotiate in trying to attain the kind of indispensability reached by other poets of her time.
Ridge’s first published book of poems, The Ghetto and Other Poems, appeared in 1918. It is a volume at once conscious of its desired place in the tradition of American poetry, of its author’s drive to innovate upon that tradition, and of its own historical and social moment. The collection begins with a poem of invocation, “To the American People,” that echoes Whitman’s sweeping democratic vista while at the same time waxing skeptical over the bard’s infectious optimism:
Will you feast with me, American people?
But what have I that shall seem good to you!
On my board are bitter apples
And honey served on thorns,
And in my flagons fluid iron,
Hot from the crucibles.
How should such fare entice you!24
Though the poem begins with an invitation, Ridge’s conceit of a shared feast quickly devolves into a Blakean plate of oxymorons—bitter apples, honeyed thorns. At first the poem appears emblematic, almost allegorical, but in fact her ironic choice of metaphor instructs the reader to call to mind the brutal world of hunger and poverty that is the other America of breadlines and oppressed workers. With this deft inversion of the reader’s expectations, Ridge transforms a song of American innocence into a song of American experience. It is, to use her own words in describing Whitman’s poetic revolution, “a grand nihilistic gesture.”25 Just as she envisioned Whitman’s poetry assailing “the whole bastille of form and thought” so she frames her own work as an effort to demolish mannerism—what she called in a review of one Georgian anthology the poetry of “a tactful hostess picking her dinner guests.”26 Instead, she would in the manner of her friend and exemplar, Alfred Kreymborg, “deal direct with life,” to get out and make a clearing “instead of huddling in mental tenements.”27 Here is Blake’s metaphor of “mind-forged manacles” updated to the twentieth century, evocative of a world akin to the stultifying cocktail parties from which Prufrock sought escape.
Real physical tenements, of course, constitute the difficult world about which Ridge chose to write. In a review of one young poet’s work she observed that he “lives and writes as one who has lived and suffered with the world’s workers.”28 Perhaps nowhere is this judgment more truly applied to her own work than of the long title poem of her first book. “The Ghetto” is a poem in nine numbered sections that depicts in intimate and vivid detail the world of the Jewish immigrants of New York’s Lower East Side. Across its sections the poem moves expansively, the way a mural depicts scene after scene until within the wider prospect of the entire structure each individual portrayal gains in significance and intensity. Each section is alternately atmospheric and dramatic, at once offering a catalogue of the world beheld in the teeming streets as well as in the intimacy of domestic relationships. Throughout the poem, Ridge manages to tread the fine line between identifying herself too assertively with these immigrants and merely objectifying them. Nevertheless, an immigrant herself, it is the consciousness of being “other” and nearly anonymous in this dense and vibrant urban landscape that clearly propels her imagination. Here is the poem’s opening:
Cool inaccessible air Is floating in velvety blackness shot with steel-blue lights, But no breath stirs the heat Leaning its ponderous bulk upon the Ghetto And most on Hester street…
The heat… * * * Herring-yellow faces, spotted as with a mold, And moist faces of girls Like dank white lilies, And infant’s faces with open parched mouths that suck at the air as at empty teats.29
Reading Ridge’s evocation of the ghetto through the lens of Eliot’s “Prufrock” with its yellow fog and its streets “like an argument of insidious intent,” one might be tempted to interpret the scene as one more modernist portrayal of the world’s grim meaninglessness. Certainly Ridge has no illusions about the poverty of the world she depicts. However, as the poem proceeds Ridge looks beyond the impotent dismay of Prufrock’s fraught consciousness to discover an empathy restorative of human feeling:
Young women pass in groups,
Converging to the forums and meeting halls,
Surging indomitable, slow
Through the gross underbrush of heat.
Their heads are uncovered to the stars,
And they call to the young men and to one another
With a free camaraderie.
Only their eyes are ancient and alone… 30
What appalled Prufrock, among other things, was the sense of his own decadence and the world’s in historical relief of what Pound called “a botched civilization.” For all its poverty, severity, and ugliness, Ridge’s ghetto is free of decadence. The poor young women are “surging indomitable.” The ghetto is no wasteland, and in stark contrast its vision of history is one of continuity and endurance rather than disintegration:
Did they vision—with those eyes darkly clear,
That looked the sun in the face and were not blinded—
Across the centuries
The march of their enduring flesh?
Did they hear—
Under the molten silence
Of the desert like a stopped wheel—
(And the scorpions tick-ticking on the sand…)
The infinite procession of those feet?31
“So many, I had not thought death had undone so many,” so Eliot invokes Dante in The Wasteland, bemoaning the modern Hell of his Unreal City.32 In contrast, Ridge’s city is filled with real people who refuse to succumb to a living death. Where Eliot sees desolation, Ridge envisions life emergent, indomitable, irreducibly various. Likewise, the poet herself refuses the crass anti-Semitism that mars some of Eliot’s poems and undermines Pound’s authority. Instead, for Ridge, an old scholar has “the wisdom of the Talmud stored away / In his mind’s lavender.”33 Here is her portrait of a street trader:
All who come and go
With his amazing
Sleight-of-mind and glance
And nimble thought
And nature balanced like the scales at nought—
Looks Westward where the trade-lights glow,
And sees his vision rise—
A tape-ruled vision,
Circumscribed in stone—
Some fifty stories to the skies.34
Clearly the capitalist spur for profit drives Ridge’s trader, though still—contrary to her own political lights—she manages to portray him in the fullness of his humanity. There are no Jews “squatting on the window sill” as we find in “Gerontion.” There is, in contrast, a profound awareness of the poet’s eye seeking to encounter the other through what Emanuel Levinas would call “an epiphany of the face.” In such an epiphany “I and other” are illuminated in a mutually sustaining relationship.
Perhaps most importantly, then, Ridge’s ghetto is a social world where—unlike Eliot’s solitary ascetic waiting and Pound’s glorification of the artist as cultural Ubermensch— the longing for transcendence involves communal as well as individual rituals. The old woman who is Ridge’s neighbor lights her Sabbath candles, but far from being emblems of her loneliness or symbols of the hermit’s lone pursuit of divinity, the candles:
Infinite fine rays
To other windows,
Coupling other lights,
Linking the tenements
Like an endless prayer.35
Such communal rituals fill Ridge’s poem, and her own patient and generous observance of them at once refuses to objectify the world it encounters and, remarkably, elaborates a promise intimated in Eliot’s “Preludes”—the awareness of “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” that would bind together the world’s fragments, its fractured atoms of solitude. Ridge’s perspective here is anything but impersonal in the modernist sense; rather, it is humble before the other she encounters. Indeed, as “The Ghetto” nears its crescendo Ridge denounces “Ego” as the modern world’s great ravager with the same vehemence as Pound denouncing “Usury” in The Cantos. Strangely enough, for the right-wing Pound and the left-wing Ridge it is the world’s subservience to the economic system that breeds social injustice and misfortune, though Ridge’s assertion moves beyond materialism to locate the problem in a biological and ultimately spiritual concupiscence to which the world, and in particular capitalism, gives free reign:
Egos out of the shell,
Examining, searching, devouring—
* * *
Expanding in the mean egg…
* * *
Words, words, words,
Pattering like hail,
Like hail falling without aim…
Screaming each other down.
* * *
Egos yearning with the world-old want in their eyes—
* * *
Egos crying out of unkempt deeps
And waving their dreams like flags—36
By the end of the poem, Ego with its acquisitive spur has blended into Life that gives birth to “wars, arts, discoveries, rebellions, travails, immolations, cataclysms, hates.”37 Yet, Ridge refuses the temptation to disavow life as a cruel repetition of endlessly repeated and insatiable desires, or another round of madness. For Ridge, even in the black and clotted gutters “the electric currents of life” express an indestructible creation:38
Strong flux of life,
Like a bitter wine
Out of the bloody stills of the world . . .
Out of the Passion eternal.39
The allusion to Christ’s crucifixion in the final lines of “The Ghetto” may at first appear incongruous or, worse, a condescension like Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s notion that other faiths may be forms of “anonymous Christianity.” What we find in these lines, however, is a primary instance of Ridge’s need as an artist to fuse her own passion for the material plight of the world she encountered with a spiritual ideal. The whole world, and in particular the human struggle to attain meaningful existence, is really the material manifestation of a spiritual desire, a divine urgency that in the poet’s achieved perception would confound its defining dualism and redress the demeaning fragmentation of modern life. The poet, like the revolutionary, works in history to reach this ideal; the Passion recurs, and as such Ridge’s insight once again finds precedent in Pearse’s sacrificial ideal. Similarly, for poetic precedent one thinks of Gerard Manley Hopkins in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame”—“for Christ plays in ten thousand places / lovely in eyes not his, to the father through the features of men’s faces.”40
In contrast, Objectivism, the indigenous movement in twentieth-century American poetry defined by William Carlos Williams, and later by Charles Olson and George Oppen, eschews any direct appeal to the spiritual in its aesthetic formulation. Objectivism grew, in part at least, out of imagism. Ridge read Pound and Amy Lowell (who became the preeminent practitioner of imagism in the United States). As many of her poems demonstrate, Ridge found imagism a sympathetic technique. She uses it often to create her atmospheric effects in “The Ghetto.” More than imagism, objectivism celebrates the materials, the object itself. The most obvious example of the practice is Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”—the celebrated “no ideas but in things.” At first glance it would seem Ridge’s communism would be more sympathetic to the objectivist method, shaped as it is by the materialist refusal of the religious ideal.
Nevertheless, despite her communism, Ridge found pure materialism an insufficient ground both for art and for life. It is for this underlying reason, perhaps, that during her American editorship of Broom she rejected poems by Gertrude Stein, since for Stein language itself is material alone, a play of surfaces to be manipulated by the writer. Overruled by Loeb and Josephson in Europe, Ridge quit. On the one hand, Ridge’s abrupt severance might be chalked up to jealousy over Stein’s accomplishment, though that is highly unlikely—she simply found her work “mostly blah.”41 Or perhaps it was the natural outcome of the slowly degenerating relationship between Ridge and her European editors. That was fueled by Ridge’s own editorial convictions. On the other hand, in a letter to Ridge, Loeb asserts that Broom had become “an organ with a strongly held point of view.”42 That point of view celebrated modernity and the products of modernity, particularly machine culture. In short, the side of Ridge’s sensibility that needed to accommodate a dimension of life greater than life’s mere materiality could not abide a point of view that obdurately negated it. The perennial conflict between spirit and flesh, to put it theologically, needed to be surpassed in a synthesis that would not deny the claims of either. For Josephson, Ridge’s sensibility was “retrograde” and sentimental.43 She was at best “an excellent woman who wrote rather dull free verse.”44 One glance at The Ghetto, however, reveals an anything but jejune imagination; rather, it showcases Ridge’s startling knack for simile and metaphor. In “Flotsam,” darkness crouches “like a great cat”; a tired woman sprawls “like a broken beetle” and twigs rattle “like dice.”45 In “Faces”:
A late snow beats
With cold white fists upon the tenements—
Hurriedly drawing blinds and shutters,
Like tall old slatterns
Pulling aprons about their heads.46
In the street, beggars twitch “As though death played/With some ungainly dolls.”47 The Brooklyn Bridge has a “pythoness body.” And here is a stunning and arresting figure from “Sons of Belial” in her second book Sun-Up and Other Poems where she assumes the identity of a lynch-mob:
Mad nights when we make ritual
(Feet running before the sleuth-light. . .
And the smell of burnt flesh
By a flame-ringed hut In Missouri,
Sweet as on Rome’s pyre. . . .)
We make ropes do rigadoons
With copper feet that jig on air…. 48
Far from being sentimental and retrograde, at its best Ridge’s poetry unites what Robert Lowell (alluding to Levi-Straus) would later observe as twentieth-century poetry’s tendency to divide itself between “the raw” and “the cooked.” The subjects in “Sons of Belial,” “The Ghetto” and “Lullaby” (with its living child thrown to the flames by a white woman during a race riot) are as raw as any American poets’ in this century. At the same time, her gift for metaphor as well as her tendency to intersperse elevated diction into a poem—the ironic and perversely fanciful “rigadoons” follow “the smell of burnt flesh” in the example above—demonstrates that she can “cook” a poem quite elaborately.
While it is fair to say that in her later work Ridge’s poems tend to be somewhat “over-cooked” in their high-flown diction, there are very few such moments in The Ghetto. When rhetoric takes over it does so in a way that manifests the poet’s urgency to unify her conflicting visions:
Lights go out…
And the great lovers linger in little groups, still passionately
Or one may walk in silence, listening only to the still
summons of Life—
Life making the great Demand…
Calling its new Christs…
Till tears come, blurring the stars
That grow tender and comforting like the eyes of comrades;
And the moon rolls behind the Battery
Like a word molten out of the mouth of God.49
One can see how, in reading these lines, Josephson might make his terse conclusion. They aspire to a high Romanticism worthy of Shelley and, indeed, Ridge won the Shelley Memorial Award in 1935 and 1936. On the other hand, there are passages in Crane shaped to an Elizabethan density that are no less grand in their Romantic musings than Ridge’s. The real intent behind such soaring passages in “The Ghetto” is to accommodate a language of biblical and not just Romantic intensity to the circumstances of twentieth-century urban deprivation. Given the subject of the poem, it does not seem a grandiose ambition.
In this aspiration to create a communion between materialism and spirituality in her poetry, Ridge resembles another radical of New York’s Lower East Side, Dorothy Day. The lines quoted above—“Life making the great Demand… /Calling its new Christs”—along with the poem’s segue to “the eyes of comrades” articulates a sensibility profoundly attuned to that of the great social activist. Founder of The Catholic Worker newspaper and its houses of hospitality for the poor, Day (before her conversion) was not only an ardent advocate for social justice, she was also a frequenter of the same artist and literary salons as Ridge. In her biography, The Long Loneliness, she recounts joining Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley, and Hart Crane, among others, for the same kind of literary soirées Ridge attended and organized.50 Like Ridge she was appalled at the prospect of humanity “feeding itself ” to the machine.51 Both had substantial literary aspirations and both shared the same social ideology. Ridge wrote poems in praise of many leftist leaders and agitators, among them Irish American Tom Mooney who spent years in San Quentin after being accused of setting a bomb during a labor rally in San Francisco, and whom Day acknowledges in her biography. Remarkably, in describing the evolution of her own calling, Day uses language profoundly resonant with Ridge’s imaginative needs. “I wanted, though I did not know it yet,” so Day remarks, “a synthesis. I wanted abundant life. I wanted it for others too…”52
In this desire for a synthesis that would satisfy both her religious intuitions and her worldly concerns, Ridge’s life and work also anticipate that other extraordinary figure who combined the most intense spiritual urgency with a stark and unflagging attention to the world, Simone Weil. After a year working in factories in the Paris suburbs, Weil wrote her essay “Factory Work,” in which she sums up the circumstances of the worker in words that would have rung true to both Day and Ridge. Weil observes:
The parts circulate with labels bearing their name, material, and degree of elaboration….One could almost believe they are the persons, and the workers the interchangeable parts…. Things play the role of men, men the role of things. There lies the root of the evil.53
Here is Ridge in her poem “Fuel,” written sixteen years before:
What of the silence of the keys
And silvery hands? The iron sings…
Though bows lie broken on the strings,
The fly-wheels turn eternally…
* * *
As for the common men apart,
Who sweat to keep their common breath,
And have no hour for books or art—
What dreams have these to hide from death!54
For Ridge, as for Weil after her, in a world geared toward the fulfillment of abundant life for all, both work and art ought to be spiritual disciplines no less than work and prayer. The difference is that for both of these extraordinary women, as for Day, their St. Benedict’s contemplative cell had to be furnished among the tenements and the factories. It is this quest for abundant life, found amidst the welter of life and not in the poet’s solitary room nor in the hermit’s cell, to which Ridge committed herself in her art.
Indeed, both imaginative poles of Ridge’s sensibility— her concern with the material as well as the spiritual life— find their point of intersection in the desire for social justice. Hart Crane’s early review of The Ghetto seems prescient, then, when he remarks that “the interpretive aspects of her work” appears to be “its most brilliant facet.”55 Though he also affirms the amazing brilliance of her figural imagination (“Over the black bridge / The line of lighted cars / Creeps like a monstrous serpent / Spooring gold…”56), he finds her sincerity all the more essential and even cautions her against devolving into “a barren cleverness.” While Crane is right to suggest that the interpretive aspects of her work assume prominence over the purely aesthetic pleasure of poetry, it is her impulse to drive home the message—to provide the reader with the moral of the poem as interpreted by the poet—that infuses her poetry as it would evolve of the next twenty years. To that extent, certain poems in The Ghetto, like “The Song of Iron,” demonstrate Ridge’s tendency at times to indulge in rhetorical solutions in seeking to give poetic form to the clash of opposites fueling her imagination:
Not yet hast Thou sounded
Thy clangorous music,
Whose strings are under the mountains…
Not yet has Thou spoken
The blooded, implacable Word…
But I hear in the Iron singing— In the triumphant roaring of the steam and pistons pounding— Thy barbaric exhortation… 57
As the poem continues, Ridge likens herself to “a cupola” poured for God’s use, “a new Mary” into whom the deity might pour “thy molten, world-whelming song.” Everything about “The Song of Iron”—the grandiose diction, the syntactical inversions, the hyperbolic imagery—reveals a poet who is striving for some great, definitive utterance. Though the poem intends to waken “Dictators—late Lords of the Iron” to the “blooded, implacable Word,” this second coming of Christ as Divine Comrade overwhelms its phrasing and diction. The poet has lapsed into propagandist. The tone is strident, bombastic. Compare the tone of this poem to these lines from “Reveille” in her second book, Sun-Up and Other Poems:
As our forefathers stood on the prairies
So let us stand in a ring,
Let us tear up their prisons like grass
And beat them to barricades—
Let us meet the fire of their guns
With a greater fire,
Till the birds shall fly to the mountains
For one safe bough.58
The difference in tone between the two poems is extraordinary, though like “The Song of Iron,” “Reveille” is also a poem intended to be a call to the workers of the world to rise up in the name of justice against their oppressors, but it accomplishes that intention with a simplicity and immediacy that is enviable. Put simply, regardless of whether one agrees with Ridge’s politics, “Reveille” is an infinitely better poem because the poet has beaten back the temptation to assume the mantle of the transfiguring prophet. Despite her passionate convictions, or perhaps because of them, Ridge gradually substitutes the hyperbole of political and religious rhetoric for the genuine quarrel with self by which a poet advances both in the craft of making and in the achievement of a sensibility that continually tests itself against its own convictions. In failing to resist this temptation, Ridge’s penchant for “interpretation” leads to an equally strident indulgence in figuralism that Crane warned might transform itself into barren aestheticism. That being said, her strongest work from across the span of her career has not received adequate serious attention for its contributions and historical significance.
One likely reason for Ridge being overlooked by literary history is the time of her death in 1941—the advent of United States involvement in World War II. Though certainly the subject of a poem like “The Ghetto” would have great resonance for the shattering events taking place under Fascism, and particularly against the backdrop of The Holocaust, her leftist views would not have endeared her to the prevailing American milieu. In the 1950s, McCarthyism would have made publishing a poet of Ridge’s political cast and urgency impossible. By the 1960s, her work is all but forgotten except as a footnote to the history of American modernist poetry. For the past fifteen years, the main reason there has not been sufficient reexamination of Ridge’s work, and absence of discussion of her true importance during the first half of the twentieth century, has been the failure of her estate to produce a Collected Works wherein Ridge’s lifetime achievement can be framed. Currently, only her first three books are in the public domain. (This impasse, especially with regard to the reissuing of Ridge’s last two books, has also impeded research. The purpose of this short selected volume is to go some way toward redressing what is surely a sad literary legacy for Ridge’s work. But for unavoidable copyright issues, the present selection would have included two poems from Ridge’s earliest, and unpublished, work, Verses [written in 1905], “Voice From the Bush” and “At Sun-Down,” both written while the poet was still residing in the South Seas, and both prescient of her best later work. This volume would have also included sections from Firehead that showcased the best of that book’s ambitious verse, as well as selections from Dance of Fire, Ridge’s last book, including two of its most successful poems, “Stone Face” and “Crucible.” Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding these absent works, it is important that some introduction to the later poems be provided so that the reader can be encouraged to seek out the remainder of Ridge’s body of work, either through library access or the Internet, as well as to encourage the expeditious publication of the Collected Works.)
In describing Ridge’s later work, Quartermain remarks that her poems “drift toward the abstract and symbolic and toward the mystical and spiritual,” though the mystical and spiritual are not new elements in her work but rather constitutive of her imaginative proclivities from the outset.59 The heavy-handed symbolism and abstraction of her last three books (Red Flag, Firehead, and Dance of Fire) emerges out of a spiritual urgency present in the best poems of The Ghetto and Sun-Up, as well as those instances of authentic achievement found in those three later books. At such times, Ridge’s spiritual and mystical impulses find embodiment in the materials, in the hard edge of experience. In Sun-Up, poems like “Jaguar,” “Wall Street at Night,” and “East River” muster something of the arresting energy found in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Ding Gedichte, though in the imagist mode. “Sons of Belial” and “Reveille” are likewise poems that refuse to sacrifice Ridge’s vivid realism to pretensions of social and religious prophecy.
The long title sequence “Sun-Up,” with its child’s voice and swift juxtapositions, anticipates Theodore Roethke’s “The Lost Son” in the same way that “The Ghetto” anticipates Galway Kinnell’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World.” Moreover, throughout these two books Ridge’s poems mark an advance on the portrayal of the voices of women in the poetry of the twentieth century. As such she anticipates the explosion of women’s voices in American poetry during the latter half of that century, and in particular the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser finds precedent in Ridge’s New York of poor immigrants and workers. She is undoubtedly an important if neglected ancestor for contemporary American women poets, and to American poetry more broadly considered with respect to writers like Philip Levine as well as the plethora of immigrant poetries. Likewise, considered from the standpoint of her own time, she is an insufficiently recognized part of the confluence of politics, culture, and the burgeoning of women’s voices at the advent of modernism to the start of World War II.
All this more than suggests that Crane’s praise of Ridge’s early work was not misplaced, and that Josephson’s condescension reflected more his own insecurities as a poet than any particular failure on Ridge’s part. At the same time, her work likewise manifests a reaction against the modernist allegiance with the poetics of “art for art’s sake” in its insistence on being socially relevant and supportive of The Cause, sometimes at the expense of the poetry. Indeed, there is something of the leftist mural in her work, and murals tend to traffic in panoramas that are emblematic and larger than life. As such, certain poems either become baldly didactic, as in the “Red Flag” sequence that commemorates the Russian Revolution, or highly romanticized, and often both. Of course, there are poems in Red Flag like “Mo-ti,” “Electrocution,” “Kelvin Barry,” and “Street Accident” that retain the fusion between realism and spiritual aspiration that characterizes Ridge at her best. The theological “Death Ray” goes some way toward finding an effective balance between rhetoric and lived experience in its attempt to capture the mystery of incarnation in the ordinary dawn light:
a stirring at the quick
of some white palpitating core
of such intensity as might
burn up Manhattan like a reed60
These lines are memorable and vivid, a fusion of mystical fire and earthly embodiment. Nevertheless, however, the later poems can become increasingly “disembodied” and “curiously abstract”—to use Gregory’s apt phrase.61 It is as though, rather than achieving a dynamic synthesis, the desired marriage of the materialist and the mystic in Ridge had resolved into a series of stylized gestures. Quartermain’s evaluation that there is something “retrograde” in her later work holds true, though that should not prompt us to deny her prodigious aspiration in the later poems, nor her successes that manage to skirt the pitfalls of such stylization.62
Nowhere is Ridge’s penchant for stylization more evident than in the long poem Firehead that was to be her magnum opus. Written in response to the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, Ridge’s mystical “epic” recounts the crucifixion of Christ from various perspectives, among them that of Judas, the two Marys, Peter, and John. In this, its intention resembles St. Ignatius’s method of actively using the imagination to visualize scenes from the life of Christ in order to spur the soul to higher levels of contemplation. There is no direct mention of the trial and execution of the two anarchists, though one suspects that Ridge might have had in mind something of what Day expresses when she remarks that the sense of solidarity felt at their executions among the poor and the workers made her “gradually understand the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ whereby we are members of one another.”63 Indeed, in the opening section of the poem (simply titled “He”), Christ, “the workman’s son,” is evoked as “the pivot of the world,” the central point around which the “lustrous circle” of the universe takes form.64 The poem also orchestrates images of light, fire, and the moon that had recurred throughout many of the poems of her first three books. In both its attempt to draw together the motifs of her early work and in the sheer audacity of its theme, the poem is stunningly ambitious. By the end of Firehead, Ridge goes so far as to place us into Christ’s mind as he ascends into heaven. Despite being deemed by Stephen Vincent Benet as a work of genius, and by William Rose Benét “as one of the most remarkable long poems written in… our time,”65 Firehead, in fact, is an epic failure. Quartermain identifies the reason for its failure as “an abstract and incompletely formulated mysticism which makes for prolixity,” though the reason for the poem’s prolixity lies in the more fundamental failure of Ridge’s imagination to accommodate the materiality of human experience within her mystical vision.66 There are beautifully turned sections of the poem, though they often quickly and uncannily modulate into archaism and bathos. Here, first, are excerpts from Mary Magdallen’s dramatic monologue:
Even when I was a child in Magdala,
An only one; until my father died
Imprisoned in his love as in a cell,
I was a fire secretly burning.67
The simplicity and immediacy of the language carries with it the truth of understatement and an authenticity that continues for nearly another forty lines until there is a passage where the monologue might have ended—Magdallen lying naked on the ground in a moment of epiphany feeling “the down-rushing arc / Of heaven making no noise as it broke.”68 Then the poem goes on, its tonal change signaling Ridge’s inability to discern the emotionally earned scene from the melodramatic embellishment:
There sounded a tumultuous music.
Yet I was weary when I met thee; too many
And disparate fingers plucked upon my strings
Vibrating to any touch, until the clear
Theme was lost.69
These lines, with their forced metaphor and their shift to an antiquated mode of address, seem to bespeak the loss of the poem’s theme in Ridge’s visionary urgency. The bathos intensifies later in the section. “And arrayed in a glamorous fair dress/My soul—for thy continent delight,/For the glance, the scant word of thy praise,” so Mary addresses Christ.70 Here, as in much of Firehead, the effort at transfiguration rings false because the transfiguration itself is forced, as though Magdallen had ceased to be a real woman at all but rather a staged oracle for the poet’s visionary proclamations. It is as if the poem’s individual voices were multiple personalities that modulated without warning from something akin to idiomatic speech to the operatic and hieratic. In turn, Dance of Fire, Ridge’s final book, is at times even more unabashedly florid in its diction and tone, particularly in the long sonnet sequence “Via Ignis.” The twenty-eight poems composing this sequence combine what had become Ridge’s hermetic adaptation of light and fire imagery, used traditionally by such mystics as St. John of the Cross in “The Living Flame of Love,” with an equally mystical vision of America accomplished with far greater success in Crane’s The Bridge. There are also echoes of Shelley and Eliot. Not surprisingly, the two most successful poems in the book—“Crucible” and “Stone Face”—commemorate Robinson Jeffers and Tom Mooney, respectively, figures who are not merely figural but whose connection to history, to the natural world, and to human concerns clearly forced Ridge to reassert her allegiance to the core reality of lived experience, even at her most rhetorical:
Heads are not more lone than he, forever hearing
The base reef, which the tides, after the torsion, hushed
with their stroking,
Mewing as in a tortured sleep, feeling all the rock-saurian
Body of the coast arching at his touch, made solvent in this
Of spirit lambently playing, this audacious
Fire that would construe to its own image all things…
even a world.71
These lines in praise of Jeffers achieve with far greater dexterity, nobility, and power Ridge’s mystical intuition of divinity incarnate in the substances of matter and history— the “dynasty of fire” her later poems sought largely in vain to represent. In describing the limitations of one of her friends and fellow organizers at The Catholic Worker, Day remarked that those limitations were caused by the “absorption in the supernatural rather than the natural, in the unseen rather than the seen.”72 Such are the limitations of Ridge’s later work when she fails to forge her ideal communion between the opposing materialist and spiritualist poles of her sensibility. It is a synthesis that Day was able to achieve in her life, though she by and large gave up her artistic impulse to achieve that synthesis. At the same time, Ridge’s best work, from the beginning to the end of her career, rings consonant with Weil’s undeniable truth: “This world into which we are cast does exist; we are truly flesh and blood; we have been thrown out of eternity; and we are indeed obliged to journey painfully through time, minute by and minute out.”73 It was the journey of Lola Ridge’s life and work to offer just such a testimony, and her poetic achievement as well as her political commitment may be measured in large part by both her passion and persistence in staying the course.
1. Quartermain, Peter, “Lola Ridge” in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, 54
(Detroit: Gale, 1986), 354.
3. Boyle, Kay, & McAlmon, Robert, Being Geniuses Together (New York:
Doubleday, 1968), 16.
4. Porter, Katherine Anne, The Never-Ending Wrong (Boston: Little-Brown,
5. Gregory, Horace, & Zaturenska, Marina, A History of American Poetry,
1900–1940 (New York: Gordian Press, 1969), 444.
6. Ibid., 445.
7. Ridge, Lola, The Ghetto and Other Poems (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1918),
8. Ridge, Lola, Red Flag (New York: The Viking Press, 1927), 73.
9. Pearse, Padraic, Plays, Stories, Poems (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1966), 340.
10. Boyle & McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together, 16–17.
11. Ibid., 11.
12. Williams, William Carlos, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams
(New York: New Directions, 1951), 135.
13. Boyle & McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together, 15.
14. Ibid., 25.
15. Williams, William Carlos, 135.
16. Josephson, Matthew, Life Among the Surrealists (New York: Holt, Rinehart,
and Winston, 1962), 246.
17. Loeb, Harold, The Way It Was (New York: Criterion, 1959), 103.
18. Boyle & McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together, 140.
19. Eliot, T.S., Selected Essays, edited by Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt,
Brace, Jovanovich, 1975), 64.
20. Pound, Ezra, Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1957), 63.
21. Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists, 246.
22. Loeb, The Way It Was, 123.
23. Eliot, Selected Essays, 41.
24. Ridge, The Ghetto and Other Poems, iii.
25. Ridge, Lola, “Kreymborg’s Marionettes,” Dial 66 ( January 11, 1919): 29–
26. Ridge, Lola, “The Georgians at Home,” New Republic 17 ( January 11,
27. Ridge, “Kreymborg’s Marionettes,” Dial: 29, 31.
28. Ridge, Lola, “Salt Water,” New Masses 3 (September 1927): 27.
29. Ridge, The Ghetto and Other Poems, 3.
30. Ibid., 4.
31. Ibid., 4–5.
32. Eliot, T.S., The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt,
Brace and World, 1971), 39.
33. Ridge, The Ghetto and Other Poems, 14.
34. Ibid., 15.
35. Ibid., 16–17.
36. Ibid., 19–21.
37. Ibid., 22.
38. Ibid., 25.
39. Ibid., 26.
40. Hopkins, Gerard Manley, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by
W. H. Gardiner and N. H. MacKenzie (New York: Oxford University Press,
41. Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists, 231.
42. Loeb, The Way It Was, 122.
43. Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists, 246.
44. Ibid., 230.
45. Ridge, The Ghetto and Other Poems, 33–34.
46. Ibid., 42.
47. Ibid., 43.
48. Ridge, Lola, Sun-Up and Other Poems (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1920),
49. Ridge, The Ghetto and Other Poems, 22–23.
50. Day, Dorothy, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper and Row, 1952),
51. Ibid., 171.
52. Ibid., 39.
53. Weil, Simone, The Simone Weil Reader, edited by George Panikas (New
York: David McKay, 1977), 60.
54. Ridge, The Ghetto and Other Poems, 61.
55. Crane, Hart, The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart
Crane (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 202.
56. Ridge, The Ghetto and Other Poems, 56.
57. Ibid., 49.
58. Ridge, Sun-Up and Other Poems, 87.
59. Quartermain, “Lola Ridge” in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, 359.
60. Ridge, Red Flag, 18.
61. Gregory & Zaturenska, A History of American Poetry, 1900–1940, 445.
62. Quatermain, “Lola Ridge” in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, 359.
63. Day, The Long Loneliness, 147.
64. Ridge, Lola, Firehead (New York: Payson and Clarke, 1929), 25, 20, 17.
65. Quartermain, “Lola Ridge” in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, 359.
67. Ridge, Firehead, 113.
68. Ibid., 115.
70. Ibid., 122.
71. Ridge, Lola, Dance of Fire (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas,
72. Day, The Long Loneliness, 120.
73. Weil, The Simone Weil Reader, 69.