A Rediscovered Poet for Our Time

Anything that Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet

By Terese Svoboda
Tucson, AZ: Schaffner Press, 2016, 627 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Margaret Randall

Terese Svoboda opens her biography of Lola Ridge with a scene reminiscent of the 1989 photograph of the lone protester standing before the oncoming tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Except that it took place more than sixty years earlier, and Ridge—a woman, an immigrant, and a poet—was standing up to a rearing horse. She, along with many throughout the world, was protesting the impending executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—Italian anarchists who were falsely accused of armed robbery and murder. The horse, Svoboda tells us, reared again and again. The woman, “anorexic and Virginia Woolf-ethereal . . . tiny yet always described as tall,” remained motionless.

Poets rarely receive their due. This is true especially if they are woman, and even more if their poetry eschews lyric pleasantry to address the sociopolitical issues of their time. Lola Ridge (1873 – 1941) came into her mature voice in the interwar years, when political passion was suspect. Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980), another female poet with similar concerns, belonged to the generation after Ridge’s and still had difficulty being taken seriously by publishers and critics. Reading this biography, I sensed a connection between Ridge and Rukeyser, although the former’s poetry was less literarily compelling than the latter’s. Still, Ridge is a figure who deserves our attention, and Svoboda’s long overdue and immensely welcome biography does her justice.

In carefully constructed, chronological sections, Svoboda gives us a life, complete with all of its challenges and richness. As a poet myself, and as a reader, I especially appreciate the way Svoboda includes Ridge’s poems in the text, creating a conversation between the details of the life and the work. This is a meticulously documented volume, enriched by extensive notes, a bibliography, and quotations from letters and other archival material.

Place is important in this story. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Ridge spent her formative years traveling among Sydney, Australia; San Francisco; Chicago; New York; Baghdad; Taos; and Mexico City. In many of these places she was central to the vanguard artistic community. Because of Svoboda’s skill, we walk the streets of these places with the poet and gain an understanding of what they looked and felt like when she was there.

Ridge was an anarchist concerned with the larger political picture but concerned as well with intimate life. Well ahead of her time, she supported the rights of women, laborers, blacks, Jews, immigrants, and homosexuals (she identified and was identified as bisexual). She advocated individual liberty as well as social justice. In 1919, she gave a speech in Chicago entitled “Women and the Creative Will,” in which she argued that sexually constructed gender roles hindered female identity development. This was at least a decade before such ideas were popular, even among women’s rights advocates, making her a model for us today as we struggle in a world beset by ever more sophisticated versions of the sexist, racist, heterosexist, and xenophobic threats that face each new generation.

Does the artist have an obligation to witness and record her time? I believe she does. And more than the historian or journalist, the successful artist should express not only the events—the facts and figures—but also the feelings the events evoke. Women writers, precisely because they insist on expressing such feelings, have often been ignored or belittled. Svoboda recreates a Ridge who was “not just a poet of activism . . . but one of the first to delineate the life of the poor in Manhattan and in particular, women’s lives in New York City.”

When Ridge lived, such concerns were considered no more literary than they are today. “Four years before Eliot’s … ‘The Wasteland,’” Svoboda writes, “[Ridge’s] equally long poem ‘The Ghetto’ celebrated the “otherness” of the Jewish Lower East Side and prophesied the multiethnic world of the twenty-first century.”

Ridge “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,” Svoboda explains. She thought that the sixties generation, with its feminism and anarchism, might have resurrected her subject. Not so. And in the 1970s, although feminists rediscovered many politically engaged women poets—Meridel LeSueur comes to mind—Ridge would remain unread and virtually unknown.

Ridge edited and/or contributed to the important journals of her time, including Dial, the New Republic, and Poetry. Like young artists in every era, she confronted an old guard in her field—female as well as male poets and editors—who felt threatened by her inclusivity, groundbreaking range, and versatility. When she explored issues of style, they accused her of ignoring essence; when she was most passionate they demanded a greater attention to poetics. Her meter was awkward, except to the wisest ear.

“Respectable, high-minded persons are given to classifying writers of vers libre with dog stealers, ticket scalpers, wife deserters, and the Bolshevikii,” Ridge wrote in an announcement of one of her readings. In retrospect, it is clear that much of the disdain Ridge confronted was because she was a strong woman, and an unashamed one at that. Men were wary, and male-oriented women followed their lead.

Ridge knew and communicated with the great thinkers and creative spirits of her time. Although some denounced her, many remained close. She was a figure in important movements, from anarchism and socialism in politics to modernism in poetry. Her work was widely published, in both political and literary magazines. Yet, because of extreme dysfunction in her family of origin—she was deeply affected by her step-father’s insanity—she tended to shy away from those she considered flamboyant or “crazy.” For this reason she attacked what she termed “madness passing as art” in the dadaist performances of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had been embraced by the Little Review, the influential literary magazine published by the lesbians Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. One might have expected Ridge, with her own avant-garde inclinations, to warm to such manifestations, but her psyche held contradictions, and it is to Svoboda’s credit that she conveys the poet in all her complexity.

Throughout her life, Ridge grappled with a variety of ills, ranging from an eating disorder and moments of severe economic insecurity, to the threat of political repression during the 1919 – 1920 Palmer raids on leftists and anarchists, and what may have been a nervous breakdown. She weathered them all, though she died at 68 because of ulcerated teeth and a body devastated by physical and emotional pain. Toward the end, shunned by many she loved but cared for by a loving husband, she retreated into the fierce solitude of her writing. She wrote,

 

My thought is now a strong current rushing against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, sometimes making a clear path through these, more often held up, but fighting to penetrate, to blaze its way—never evading or going around, or leaving that obstruction for the one who comes after to tunnel through.

 

Surely, many women artists today will identify with these words.

The independence and astuteness of Ridge’s mind can be seen in her dismissal of Stalinist aesthetics as well as capitalist excess. She wrote:

I think of those awful paintings at the Soviet building in the [New York] World’s Fair—the mindless grimace of assumed joy on the faces of the people depicted . . . this tawdry decoration of a smile stamped upon the faces of a people—the Smile, not only officially approved but officially imposed.

At the same time, she described Wendell Wilkie, then the Republican candidate for president running against Franklin Roosevelt, as

 

an intelligent businessman, a shrewd advocate of capitalism . . . he implies a society of good capitalists—no more believable than a plague of good locusts—who out of their self-imposed self-control should devour only selected crops—leaving a residue for the grateful croppers.

 

In her rejection of all political extremes, Ridge was way ahead of her time. She was never limited, in either her life or her work, by what was acceptable or popular at the time.

Her second book, Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920), got rave reviews. Dial called it “acidly translated truth.” The Nation said, with “Freud rather than Plato . . . read back into the infant mind,” it had an “honesty so quick as to be diabolical.” Ridge was able to sustain the long poem better than many, and her title poem, “Sun-Up,” reads, in part:

 

The girl with the black eyes holds you tight, and you run . . . and run . . .
past the wild, wild towers . . .
and trees in the gardens tugging at their feet
and frightened dolls
shut up in the shops
crying . . . and crying . . . because no one stops . . .
you spin like a penny thrown out in the street.
Then a man clutches her by the hair . . .
He always clutches her by the hair . . .
His eyes stick out like spears.
You see her pulled-back face
and her black, black eyes
lit up by the glare . . .

 

Read today, these lines are a profound evocation of the abused female child, precursor to the abused woman, the woman still struggling to throw off millennia of patriarchal control.

Ridge wrote as meaningfully about woman abuse as she did about other, less intimate, social ills—but she always wrote from her lived experience. Svoboda brings her to us whole and with a still-beating heart. We should be immensely grateful for this excellent biography of a poet too long forgotten.

Margaret Randall’s most recent nonfiction book is Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression (2015). Her latest poetry collection is She Becomes Time (2016).

 

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